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Let Us Now Praise Bill Cronon March 27, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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For those who haven’t heard, the Republican Party of Wisconsin is (ab)using the freedom of information process to request copies of emails on historian William Cronon’s University of Wisconsin account.  This followed the appearance of a blog post Cronon wrote about the influence of a right-wing policy think tank on recent Republican legislative proposals.  A few days later, Cronon published a historically based criticism of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Wisconsin Republicans in the New York Times, making a carefully limited comparison to Joe McCarthy.  The Republican tactics almost seem designed to make sure the shoe fits.  While they are within their rights to file their request, the lack of any apparently pressing reason for wanting to root through a professor’s emails smacks of petty vengeance and intimidation.

Bill Cronon has already received a lot of support from the academic community and beyond.  But I thought this might be a nice opportunity to reflect on what is so remarkable about his work, which speaks to his outstanding integrity as a scholar.  I’m going to focus on Nature’s Metropolis (1991), which is an exemplar of good history-writing — certainly in my personal top-5 — but one could also profitably read Changes in the Land (1983), which only rises to the level of very good.

I think the weakest aspect of Nature’s Metropolis is in its theoretical framework, which places the book in the intellectual context of the Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis”, the Marxist notion of “second nature”, and models of urban development.  It’s not that these are inappropriate contexts, so much as it seems unfortunate to rope the book’s content into a limited dialogue with relatively arcane ideas, when its own ideas are so well developed, and the subject matter speaks so well for itself.  So let us detain ourselves with those dialogues no further.  Very simply: Nature’s Metropolis is a great book about technology; it is a great book about the land and the city; and foremost, it is a great book about Chicago, the Midwest, and America.

It behooves us, then, to meditate on the writing strategies that allow this book to function as a seminal work of historiographical greatness, so that we can learn from it.  Nature’s Metropolis is by no means a complete history.  Like the vast grid of streets on which Chicago was built, and the Mies van der Rohe buildings that define modern Chicago architecture, Cronon’s book is a testament to the possibilities inherent in simplicity.  It is little more than an account of the commodities and the innovations that allowed a small outpost at the edge of settled America to become an enormous city, which in turn allowed the preternaturally rapid expansion of settled America into the vast plains to the west.

Cronon has never dodged the moral issues that lodge themselves uncomfortably at the heart of American history, but his writing tends to be about understanding the roots of the tragedies of the past rather than moralizing about them — an approach that is especially evident in Changes in the Land.  Chicago, though, like the rest of America, was made possible as white settlers displaced native tribes in fits of trade, conflicting interest, diplomacy, betrayal, war, and atrocity.   Cronon is clear about these origins and is equally blunt about what drove the history of the region thereafter: grain and livestock.

Cronon establishes the key components the history of the grain and livestock trade: transport, processing, storage, trade, supplies, and finance.  These areas were subjected to successive innovations that augmented Chicago’s ability to serve as a hub between farms to the west and consumers to the east.  Most importantly, Chicago was built at the southern tip of Lake Michigan, which allowed it to take advantage of the Great Lakes as a transportation route, but when the railroads came through, it was Chicago’s location that made it a hub for traffic looking to go around the Great Lakes (as those of us who have tried to drive east from the Upper Midwest can testify).  As a consequence, Chicago became a place of switchyards, stockhouses, grain elevators, farm equipment manufacturers, mail-order suppliers, and, of course, the Chicago Board of Trade.

Cronon’s account of the rationales underlying the foundation and evolution of the Chicago Board of Trade and the innovation of the futures contract is surely the highlight of the book.  It is a masterpiece of how practices (signing trade contracts) build on top of specific innovations (the standardization of grain quality), which then develop pathologies (market cornering), which need to be tightly regulated to prevent the system from collapsing in on itself.  It is a depiction that few can match of the intellect struggle to keep pace with ingenuity — a tension that should be the staple of any history of ideas tied to histories of practice.

I think the core strength of Nature’s Metropolis is that Cronon is content to, and comfortable with dividing his history into different subjects (refrigerating and transporting beef, sorting grain, trading futures…), and then providing an explanation of the key activities comprising those subjects, the problems arising in the course of those activities, and, crucially, a sense of the changing scale and scope of those activities with time, illustrated using numbers, maps, examples, and photographs — and then moving on to the next subject.  These distinct histories are interrelated, and together they provide a basic accounting of the resources and practices that made possible not just the advent, but the scale and stability of Chicago and its reach into its hinterland. 

Nature’s Metropolis is thus a skeletal, yet synthetic framework into which other histories can be fit, and which can be easily complemented with any of a number of other histories tangential to its geography, time frame, and subject matters.  It is long, but never belabored, because the constituent arguments within it are packed so tightly and coherently together.  This level of explanatory depth can only be achieved by a scholar willing to explore a variety of developments until they make sense, and willing to forgo any need to tie particular histories to a single cohering argument.

Finally, I would like to praise this book’s strange ability to be sentimental, in spite of the fact that the book’s skeletal contents remain at all times far-removed from material reflecting directly on individual experience.  Cronon is from rural Wisconsin, and writes in his introduction about how he originally came to think of Chicago as an urban abomination.  The book is part of his attempt to understand how closely his rural life was connected to the business of that city.

I am also a Midwesterner, having grown up in the suburbs of Minneapolis in Minnesota, just to the west of Wisconsin.  I first went to Chicago on a field trip in sixth grade, and vividly remember loving the place instantly.  I later did my undergraduate work at Northwestern on Chicago’s outskirts, and I still feel the pull to stay whenever I visit.  When you go to Chicago, the city’s history makes itself apparent.  But it’s not like my current city of London, where the history is directly visible.  Pieces of nineteenth-century Chicago still survive in places, but it is much more about a tradition of practical living reflected in modest urban bars with neon beer signs in the windows, the Vienna beef hot dog joints, semi-trucks in traffic jams on the interstates running around and through the city, the naked visibility of the El train, as well as in the aforementioned street grid and even in that boxy Mies van der Rohe architecture — the “city of broad shoulders” indeed.  Nature’s Metropolis gives me a much deeper sense of what that weirdly coherent aesthetic is all about and where it came from.

Nature’s Metropolis also helps me think about my native Minneapolis: the remnants of the grain trade and flour milling on the Mississippi River, the big “Grain Belt Beer” sign nearby, the commodity prices that were still relayed on WCCO radio in the early mornings when I was growing up in the 1980s, the trains running behind the minor league baseball stadium in St. Paul, my job after college with a Cargill offshoot, the “Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party” label attached to the state branch of the Democratic Party.  At the end of his book, Cronon discusses how cities like Minneapolis took away some of the centrality of Chicago from Midwestern life, and I always feel pride when I read that part that my own neck of the woods could manage to steal even a little bit of the thunder of the behemoth city 400 miles southeast.  Bill Cronon somehow has this wonderful ability to make it clear that the history of land, technology, and economy is human history.

Bill Cronon is a jolly good fellow, and so say all of us who can appreciate that only a thoughtful, careful, conscientious mind can write history like this.



1. Stephen - March 29, 2011

Thank you for this article. I too am originally from Minnesota and lived in Minneapolis for much of my life. I, too, went to Chicago in sixth grade. Many of my family now live there. I also lived in London for five years. So when you say that there are elements of the 19th century alive in London, I know what you mean. And when you write that there are elements of nineteenth-century Chicago that still survive in places, but ones having to do with mass culture, I tend to agree. But I’d like to add a layer of nuance to your observations. The US is a funny place. We have symbols all over of old-world tensions but we have often forgotten them. Chicago is not just about the Cubs, hotdogs, a style of pizza, and great buildings. It is also a city located in a peculiar geography. It is not accidental that Gary is mere miles away. No better symbol of Chicago’s labor history exists than the Haymarket Memorial, which stands and honors the martyrs of a massacre. What many people don’t realize is that for a long time a statue of a Chicago policeman stood opposite that memorial. The policeman had his hand out, gesturing “stop” towards the memorial. The policeman was unable to survive constant efforts to vandalize it. In 1969 it was blown up. In 1972, after having had a 24 hour watch placed upon it for two years, the stateu was moved to the Chicago Police Academy. In other words, a sign of the great struggle for labor in Chicago stands opposite an empty space symbolizing State power. Few know the history. It is not sentimental. But it captures the fraught history of a great city: a history that shows itself as much in absences as in fixtures of the landscape.

2. Will Thomas - March 30, 2011

Interestingly, when I was at NU, one of the student theater groups put on a production about Haymarket Square. The only bit I really remember was that they had a silent character in a gas mask hanging around throughout the play. The program instructed you not to accept any popcorn that the gas-masked character might offer you. I think this was supposed to commemorate the silent or forgotten aspects of history.

3. Weekly Round-up 5 « Contagions - April 3, 2011

[…] involved in the political drama going on in Wisconsin this week. Ether Wave Propaganda has a post in support of historian Bill Cronan, author of Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, who is being attacked by the […]

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