Review of "Nature's Metropolis – Chicago and the Great West"

The history of capitalism is the history of the relation between town and country, and Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon shows the epic scale of this relationship in Chicago’s inception and growth into the second largest city in America. Using a Hegelian-Marxist conceptual framework and a wealth of financial reports, invoices, federal bankruptcy data, census data, newspaper subscription records, and court rulings, Cronon expounds on how technological development related to production, transportation, housing, marketing and distribution mediated the economic relations between town and country.

Cronon opens by illustrating how Chicago grew to enormous proportions due to its relationship to a series of frontier and natural environments and how massive public projects were able to remove the natural physical limitations to trade. The mesh of physical contingencies that Cronon describes in the development of Chicago’s industry highlights the social and economic logic that is eventually sublated by subsequent development.

Cronon then surveys different historians’ approaches to understanding the development of the 19th century American West. He turns against Turner’s frontier thesis, and shows how agricultural development in the less developed region led to commercial expansion in the city. This critical point is then tied to an exegesis of Von Thunen’s Isolated State. This state is conceived of as such: The central zone is the city and is able to obtain the highest rents as it is the most population dense. Outside of this are five zones that, due to their capital investment and transportation costs to the city determines their proximal relation to it. First there is the zone of intensive agriculture (dairy and market gardens), following that is extensive agriculture (unrotated wheat) or intensive forestry, then open range livestock raising, a zone for trapping, hunting and trade with the hinterlands and finally the “wilderness”.

After explicating the weaknesses of this ahistorical concept, Cronon moves into a Marxian geography wherein capital enters and exits regions of increased profitability and is constantly changing these zone and the relationships of those in them. In his chapters regarding the conflict between small lumber stores and direct sellers as well as between local butchers and the Chicago meat processing plants we see this most clearly. However it would be a mistake to conceive of Cronon’s work as a social or labor history of Chicago, while these human concerns are intimately connected to his narrative, he is primarily concerned with explicating commodity market relationships, developments and their effects on the physical composition of Chicago. Though this may seem to be a disavowal of the very human element that created the wealth of the city, it functions more to delineate the competitive limits for both labor and capital based upon technological and regional development and the sundry effects this had on human relationships involved in the struggle for control of such processes. Examples of this include but are not limited to the standardization of packaging to handle greater volumes of wheat than any previously amassed, their grading of grain and lumber based upon variable qualities to simplify pricing, the purchasing power given to the grain barons, the creation of the first futures markets, attempts at regulation, etc.

In addition to the commodity history of grain, Cronon also focuses on meat, lumber, railways and capital investments. Each historically situates the conceptual/physical transformations brought about by centralization process as well as how many of these very aspects which gave Chicago a competitive advantage over nearby cities and helped it to rise also lead to its decline. One example of this is the large number of trains that turned Chicago into an entrepot. As the city grew, housing and commercial real estate development along with safety concerns sapped the train’s efficiency, thus forcing shippers to circumvent the city altogether and capital intense industries, such as Hormel, to decentralize. This dialectical perspective is evident throughout.

In the closing section Cronon outlines Chicago’s moral economy as conceptualized at the time, thus highlighting the oft-cited divide between town and country. The White City becomes a point for discussion on capitalist relationships in general and how symbiotic but unequal relationships were conceptualized and navigated. As generally ebulliant I am about this intricate work, there are also some glaring omissions that must be calculated within the historiography of Chicago’s commodity markets. The proximity of iron ore and coal is are two important aspects overlooked, as is the massive number of immigrants constantly entering into the city and putting constant downward pressure on wages. Cronon cannot be overly criticized for this, but at least some discussion of regulating industries and capital competition as it relates to the changes so artfully described would add yet another layer to the developments Cronon described.