An econo-environmental history of Chicago
December 11, 1991
"Finally," people thought when this book came out, "Chicago explained!" I thought that, anyway. Of course, threads of Cronon's arguments run through many of the better histories and geographies of the great metropolis. But Cronon wove them together more deftly than anyone while adding essential new findings about capital flows.
This piece borrows heavily from the review I wrote of the book for Chicago Enterprise magazine. (That review is here.) This IT version differs slightly from the original by the removal of a pointless aside about Springfield and the reordering of a few paragraphs.
By the way, Cronon's book about the Connecticut Indians, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill & Wang, 1983) shaped my own, much later history of mid-Illinois. For more about Cronon's work, see his website.
Reviewed: Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon. W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1991
In the last century Chicago astonished the world, and in doing so helped remake it. The story of the city's growth from outpost to industrial colossus is well known, if not always understood. A generation of capitalists obliterated distance, reordered whole ecosystems, even reorganized time itself to the purposes of a new mass market. High school history to the contrary, it was not hogs and wheat and steel that made Chicago great but new ideas about how to make, move, and market such things.
The story is told by Yale historian William Cronon, author of the new book, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. The book has won universal praise as a minor masterpiece of its kind. Any author who can make arcana such as credit flows intelligible is an author worth his library card; for instance, Cronon's account of how the grain trade was transformed when corn and wheat ceased to be bought and sold in sacks is a marvel of exposition.
Cronon attempts a synthesis of the environmental and the economic approach to history. Chicago's location was an early advantage. But the city boasted no natural advantages that were substantially richer than those of a dozen other cities that pretended to the title of Gateway City to the West; its physical setting was swampy, its river port at best adequate, and the only mineral wealth of note was rock to build with.
Happily for the city, a bevy of innovations quickly rendered place less and less relevant to the economy of cities. Cronon explains how, in the latter half of the last century, the market transformed "first nature"—the virgin countryside of the 19th century West—into "second nature," a countryside that has been mowed, sprayed, subdivided, and fenced into an essentially industrial landscape. For example, refrigeration made it possible for Chicago meat packers to transform prairies into feed lots for factories half a continent away.
The result? "Geography no longer mattered very much except as a problem in management," Cronon writes, "The cattle might still graze amid forgotten buffalo wallows in central Montana, and the hogs might still devour their feedlot corn in Iowa, but from the corporate point of view they could just as well have been anywhere else."
What did matter was not where Chicago was in relation to exploitable natural resources but where it was in relation to the means of financing the exploitation. The ecology of money thus was as vital as the ecology of nature to Chicago's expansion, according to Cronon. The reason Chicago became the Gateway City to the West instead of, say, St. Louis was because Chicago stood at the terminus of a chain of canals and railroads (and business relationships) that connected it to the banks and boardrooms of New York and London. St. Louis meanwhile—though better placed in other respects—was dependent in its crucial early years on a river that led south to New Orleans and the southern hemisphere—mere outposts of world capitalism, not its capitals.
* * *
Chicago didn't just loot the countryside of the middle third of the country, it transformed it. Cronon explains that the relationship between city and country is reciprocal, at least in economic terms. In the process of taking wealth from its rural hinterland, Chicago made new wealth possible by providing a market for what could be harvested there.
The familiar resentment expressed toward Chicago by small‑town Midwest finds its explanation in this highly unequal partnership. Downstate Illinoisans resented (often with reason) the control that the city's bankers and grain traders and butchers held over them, but they perhaps overlooked the fact that without those markets they would be backwaters—as, sadly, many of them are becoming again today.
As today's Chicago reorganizes its economy to fit these new realities, it—or rather the metropolitan agglomeration of which it is the enfeebled heart—it is again drawing people and jobs from its hinterland. So concentrated have population and wealth become in the northeast corner of Illinois that the state's demographics are geographically unbalanced in a way not seen since the 1820s, when virtually every Illinoisan who didn't wear animal skins lived south of Vandalia.
The more perfect recent eradication of place as an essential economic factor has transformed the concept of the "frontier." (Cronon turns Frederick Jackson Turner's famous thesis on its head in arguing that the settlement of the U.S. was an urban rather than a rural phenomenon.) Today, the commodities that make up a city's trade are unnatural resources—money, ideas, services that can be manufactured or grown almost anywhere.
For example, there is no reason for the Japanese to send their money to Schaumburg to buy cellular phones, the way New York once sent its money to Chicago to buy beef, except that Schaumburg is the place where the smart people are who know how to design them. Similarly, Chicago's auto plants now compete with Japanese plants—built in cornfields in McLean County. This most remarkable of 19th century frontier cities now functions in a world in which every place is its frontier. ●
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One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
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“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
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A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
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SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
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Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
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