Nature’s Metropolis Turns 25: A Conversation with William Cronon

The City of Chicago / sketched & drawn on stone by Parsons & Atwater.

Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (W. W. Norton & Co., 1991) is the best history ever written about Chicago, and I was honored to be able to interview William Cronon about his book on the 25th anniversary of its publication at the plenary session of the annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History at the Drake Hotel in Chicago on April 1.

In this landmark book about the way cities develop and share a reciprocal relationship with their landscape, Cronon displays a prodigious skill as a researcher and even more as a thinker. In multitudinous ways, he shows how Chicago grew because of its ability to tap into the “stored sunshine” of its hinterland—and looks closely at the moral implications of that growth.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

Patrick Reardon: How would you evaluate Nature’s Metropolis? What has it accomplished?

William Cronon: I think it was part of a number of works that began to break down the boundaries between city–nature and rural, or wild, nature. I’m of the conviction that one of the wonders of environmental history is that it opens up a space of exploration where anything and everything in the human past can be looked at in terms of how human actions are embedded in a material world that is only partly of human making, and that nature doesn’t end at the Bob Marshall Wilderness. It doesn’t end in a wheat field in southeastern Washington state. It’s right here. It’s right inside my body. Nature’s Metropolis looks at the city–country, human–nature interface at a particular regional scale, which is both its strength and its weakness. There are almost no people in Nature’s Metropolis. And almost no lived, textured reality of classed, gendered, raced people. They’re just not in there. J. M. D. Burrows with his potatoes going down the Mississippi River is probably the most poignant human being in that entire book.

PR: Did you have a problem getting it published since there are no people?

WC: I never got that [criticism] from my editor, who was very tolerant of all sorts of things about this particular book. One of my passions as a writer, and as a scholar and a teacher, is taking boring things that people pay no attention to that matter enormously in their lives but go unnoticed and trying to figure out how we can narrate those things, embedding them in a series of natural and geographical contexts (as well as time contexts) so that things that you’ve been walking by your entire life without ever seeing come alive. And although telling stories about people is one way of doing that, I’m actually more intrigued more often than not—at least in this book—by how you take dead, inert stuff and make it become really intriguing. One of my missions in life is to take boring stuff and make it un-boring.

PR: How much did you go into your research not knowing the questions you were going to ask?

WC: I think I knew the big question: Is it possible to write the history of the West or the American frontier—whatever word you want to use—not out on [Frederick Jackson] Turner’s frontier but sitting in the metropole? (Or, in the case of Chicago, the secondary metropole, because in many ways New York is the engine behind the story I tell in the book.) Is it possible to tell that story looking out from the city toward the hinterland, rewriting U.S. history in the style of Harold Innis?

That question was the beginning. So I started looking for things that are relevant to that question. I came to think of the research for this book as searching for what I called relational data. It’s pretty easy to find statistics and documents about a particular place. It’s easy to find stuff about Chicago. It’s not nearly so easy to look for documents and data that are connections. So I just went on a rummaging expedition for anything and everything that fit this description of relational stuff. I was surprisingly successful in some areas and completely unsuccessful in others. I wanted to do something on manufacturing that wasn’t just pork-packing. I started looking for steel records. I wanted something on energy flows, and I just could not find anything adequately connecting Chicago with the Illinois coal fields to do that. So that just dropped out of the picture.

PR: Do you remember the moment that go you started on this research? What were the first steps?

WC: I finished an Oxford dissertation in 1978, went to Yale, started working on what was to be my American Ph.D., and I actually arrived in the first year already thinking that a city–country study was going to be what I would do. I interrupted it with a seminar paper I did in my first year that became the book called Changes in the Land. But when I designed the Chicago project initially, it was under the sign of Frederick Jackson Turner, and it was with me as something called a western historian. In ’78 I didn’t think there was something called environmental history that I could get a job in. So I obscured the fact that this question about city and country had something to do with environment and nature. It was all about, in effect, turning Turner on his head and thinking about the frontier in urban terms rather than in rural terms.

I wrote the first two chapters—the booster chapter and the railroad chapter—and in the meantime, after publishing Changes in the Land, I became well-known as an environmental historian and I was working on this huge book about Chicago that had nothing to do with environmental history, or at least I had hid everything that was about the environment. So I lost faith in the book. I’m somebody who cannot write if I don’t believe in what I’m doing. There was a three- or four-year interval when I was starting teaching and doing other things, and I just did not believe the Chicago book was what I wanted to be doing. And, since it was my Yale Ph.D. dissertation, I was in a bad situation.

And I then sat down and wrote the prologue. And the prologue actually was Bill Cronon persuading himself that the book was worth writing and reframing it as environmental history. So the prologue had as its purpose the repurposing of a Western history—a traditional frontier study—into an environmental history. That solved the problem and enabled me to write the book.

William Cronon (right) with Patrick Reardon. Photo by Brian Hamilton, April 1, 2017.
William Cronon (right) with Patrick Reardon. Photo by Brian Hamilton, April 1, 2017.

PR: How did you choose Chicago?

WC: I knew I wanted to do city–hinterlands, and the Canadians had already done Montreal, the grand kahuna for early Canadian history. I wanted to be a Western historian, so the other obvious candidates were St. Louis or San Francisco. (The biggest candidate would have been New York City, but New York City would have been overwhelming because it’s the whole continent in terms of that story.) And I grew up in Wisconsin, the hinterland of Chicago, and I had very complicated emotions about Chicago, as those opening pages tell you. So, in a way, although it is a book about Chicago, it’s also very much a book about the Middle West. I was never in much doubt that Chicago is the obvious place.

One other thing to add is that the great British historian Asa Briggs used the term “shock city,” saying that for any given historical period from the Enlightening forward, there are certain cities that stand as the shocking symbol of an emerging modernity that is unrecognizable to the period before. In the eighteenth century, it’s Manchester. In the early nineteenth century, Manchester and Birmingham. In the first half of the twenty-first century, it’s Los Angeles. But for the second half of the nineteenth century, there’s no question that it was Chicago. People who came to Chicago had that reaction—that they were seeing the future—and they were disturbed by the future they thought they were seeing.

I had an economic historian on my dissertation committee, a wonderful historian named Bill Parker, who said you really can’t do just Chicago, you need to do six cities so you can compare them, because otherwise you can’t make causal claims. You’re only making narrative, descriptive claims. (And that was OK with me; I’m OK with narrative, descriptive claims.) But I was very conscious that the story I wanted to tell about Chicago has analogs all over the world today. So the idea that there is a city that is serving as the interface between a much larger globalizing economy, a kind of colonial outpost with a set of emerging connections with a periphery, and that city is coordinating the transformation of the periphery on behalf of capital and power, that’s the story of modernity. And Chicago is an amazing example. But it’s not at all hard to see on the Pearl River Delta right now that story is unfolding. That story has unfolded in Brazil. It’s unfolded in many, many other parts of the world.

PR: The boosters talked about the inevitability of Chicago. Nature’s Metropolis makes it clear that there were many factors that came into play to make Chicago happen, including the commitment of Eastern money. If it hadn’t been Chicago, do you have any thoughts on where it would have been? An early Gary or Milwaukee?

WC: Although I’m an environmental historian to my core, I’m even more a historian. I’m fascinated by certain kinds of historical phenomena in the last quarter millennia of places where new technologies produce collective actions by human being, where thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people all make choices—they all have agency, it’s not a determinism—and yet the collective decisions are so piled up that it’s kind of hard to imagine how it might have been anyhow else.

So, clearly, the deus ex machina of the book is the railroad. Remember the railroad is not a technology, it’s a cultural system. It’s a set of human relations, a set of power relationships that get articulated through what seems like a machine but is in fact an enormous social system. So one answer to your question is you’d have to look for other places that had the potential, through the railroad, to control larger areas of hinterland space. And that did in fact happen: that’s Atlanta. It emerges as the railroad hub of the American Southeast and had nothing like the significance prior to the railroad that it did after. In Canada, it’s very clear to me that Winnipeg is the Chicago equivalent for Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In many ways, the Winnipeg story is the Chicago story for that very rich grain-producing region of Canada.

I don’t think it would have been Milwaukee. It’s too far up the lake. (Now I’m becoming a geographical determinist.) It would be other cities that were able to take advantage of the possibilities of the railroad. And the Twin Cities are a brilliant example. What they did to flour milling would have been inconceivable without the railroad.

William Cronon (left) in conversation with Patrick Reardon at the annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History at the Drake Hotel. Photo by Brian Hamilton, April 1, 2017.
William Cronon (left) in conversation with Patrick Reardon at the annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History at the Drake Hotel. Photo by Brian Hamilton, April 1, 2017.

PR: This isn’t just a historical book. It’s a moral book. Chicago and the whole American economy went to the bank of nature and just cashed in all the chips. Did you get pushback from other historians for making that moral claim?

WC: One of the things I actually love about the discipline of history is that historians are narrators. I honestly think we are the last explicitly narrative discipline left in the American academy (with the journalists, as well). Storytelling is no longer, in most disciplines, regarded as a serious undertaking. I believe that storytelling is inherently a moral activity. It’s about organizing events and characters and landscapes and settings so that a series of events becomes explicable in the sequence of relationships that are unfolding over the course of the narrative. And almost always the narrative has some lesson in mind. One of the beauties of history is that, although there have been moments in which historians have argued with each other about whether they are objective or not, objectivity is actually not the phrase most historians use the describe what they do. Our goal, it seems to me, is to be fair to the people whose lives we narrate. That means trying to see the world through their eyes.

One of my beliefs as a writer and a teacher is that if I’m going to argue against something, it’s morally incumbent upon me to be able to articulate the thing I’m arguing against so that a person who holds that view recognizes that I’ve done justice to their point of view and could respond, “I couldn’t have said that better myself.” Then we can begin to enter into a dialogue about other ways of thinking.

My deepest moral project is to understand the world, which is a really complicated task, and my moral conviction is that rich understanding of the world leads to better, more responsible and just action in the world. We so often act on the basis of our own mythic conceptions; we believe our own lies, and we’re forever lying to ourselves because we want the world to conform to our convictions. Not letting ourselves do that is part of acting morally in the world.

You say I’m a writer with a moral project, and I embrace that description with gratitude. The moral of Nature’s Metropolis, which I try to articulate in its closing pages, is the paradox that at the very moment the world was becoming even more intimately and intricately interconnected to a degree never before seen in history, those interconnections were being rendered opaque by the people embedded within them, so that they could no longer see those relationships. For me, one of the paradoxes of modernity is that we are unbelievably interconnected in the world today and most of those interconnections most people don’t see at all. How can you take moral and political responsibilities for the consequences of your own life if you don’t know how your own actions are proliferating out into the world? I just don’t know. I think that’s a big chunk of what environmental history has always been about.

Featured image: Parsons & Atwater, “The City of Chicago” (1874), from the Library of Congress

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission. 

William Cronon is Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His books, in addition to Nature’s Metropolis, include Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (Hill & Wang, 1983) and the edited volumes Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (W. W. Norton, 1995) and Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past (W. W. Norton, 1992). He is currently at work on three book projects: an exploration of the lessons environmental history can offer contemporary environmental politics; a history of Portage, Wisconsin, from the late Pleistocene to the present; and “The Making of the American Landscape,” a survey of landscape change in the United States since pre-colonial times. Among other distinctions, he has been awarded Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships and was elected president of the American Historical Association. He has been a member of the Governing Council of The Wilderness Society for more than twenty years, and he is a founder and has twice served as director of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE). Website. Twitter. Contact.

Patrick T. Reardon spent much of his thirty-two-year career with the Chicago Tribune covering urban affairs, particularly the intersections of history, politics, neighborhoods, and demographics. He is now writing a book about the impact of Chicago’s elevated railroad Loop on the development and stability of the city. He is the author of eight books, including the poetry collection Requiem for David and Faith Stripped to Its Essence, an analysis of Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence. His essays and poems have been published widely, and his book reviews have twice won the Peter Lisagor Award for arts criticism. He has lectured on Chicago history at the Chicago History Museum. Website. Contact.

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