47 pages 1 hour read

William Cronon

Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1991

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Summary and Study Guide


Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West is a nonfiction book published in 1991 by American author and environmental historian William Cronon. In a historical narrative of Chicago, one of the most successful American cities, Cronon traces the roots of 19th-century ecological and economic thought that turned the western frontier into a central metropolis. The recipient of many recognitions and awards, Nature’s Metropolis began as a doctoral dissertation at Yale University, where it was supported by a Danforth Fellowship and by a fellowship from the university.

This study guide references W. W. Norton & Company’s Kindle edition.

Plot Summary

Nature’s Metropolis is a historical analysis of how Chicago, the American West, and areas in between came to rely on one another for economic and ecological prominence. As much as the text is a historical narrative, it is also a personal one. Cronon traces his own struggle to accept the city as a place where nature exists symbiotically with the surrounding countryside.

The book opens with a geographical overview of Chicago and its surrounding areas. Tracing the history of the western railroads, the dependence on grain as a cash crop, the explosion of the lumber industry, and the revolutionary way livestock agriculture took over the nation, Cronon presents a compelling argument for how natural resources in rural areas were directly responsible for Chicago’s success. Likewise, examining these commodity markets in the context of how they shaped the geography of Chicago and the Great Lakes region underscores Cronon’s thesis that no other city played as significant a role as Chicago in developing the mid-continent during the second half of the 19th century. Additionally, no other city can effectively serve as the vantage point for understanding its relationships to regions in the West.

In Part 1, Cronon tracks the rise of Chicago as a major metropolis in the 19th century. He couches Chicago’s rise to prominence in terms of empire, quoting an 1880s Chicago newspaperman who wrote, “In ancient times [...] all roads led to Rome; in modern times all roads lead to Chicago” (78). Like Rome, Chicago’s ascendancy was accompanied by violence and warfare. When Sac chief Black Hawk traveled to present-day Illinois to protect his ancestral lands, he encountered violence from white settlers.

From there, Chicago grew both because of and despite the natural landscape. For example, the mouth of the Chicago River was too shallow and the currents from Lake Michigan too strong for ships to navigate close to the city. Nevertheless, the construction and expansion of America’s railroads out West did more to further Chicago’s growth than perhaps any other factor.

In Part 2, Cronon provides evidence of his thesis that big cities like Chicago grow and thrive within a symbiotic relationship with the rural hinterlands surrounding it. He discusses how the booming success of the grain, lumber, and meat industries in Chicago came about because of how natural resources were harvested in outlying rural areas. In short, Cronon argues, the city and country landscapes defining the American West did not grow in isolation.

Finally, Part 3 focuses largely on the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Also known as the World’s Fair or the White City, the Columbian Exposition showcased Chicago’s many achievements in the 19th century. Here, Cronon explores the role that rhetoric and propaganda play in creating divides in the popular imagination between urban and rural, or nature and industry. These dichotomies, Cronon suggests, are far more artificial than they may appear at first blush.