Natural Teleology: the Railroad and the “Natural” History of Chicago

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Our readings this week bridge a divide that I’ve seen in our previous readings: a disjunction between urban, economic, and environmental history. Rozario overlapped urban and economic history, Matthews environmental and social history, and Schneirov economic and social history. In Nature’s Metropolis, however, William Cronon does not merely suggest where these subjects might overlap, but fuses each together, suggesting that just as an isolation of the rural and the urban is an “illusion,” so too is any division of these historical subjects (18). In Chicago, Cronon asserts, we see the rise of a natural city and, consequently, a unique, interdisciplinary subject of historical inquiry.

As Eli humorously argued in his post last week, Turner’s “Frontier Thesis”—while it was certainly significant to the historiography of the American West—implausibly treated the frontier as an omnipotent actor in American history that not only offered the natural conditions suitable for westward expansion, but served as a driving force for American democratization. Much of Eli’s critique of Turner seems to be Turner’s heavily stereotyped characterization of the frontier.  But, as I think Eli’s quotations allude to, Turner personifies the frontier as one who “masters the colonist” (quoted in post). Its stereotypes aside, such a notion of the frontier seems contrived. While I can accept treating the frontier as  a natural actor in history, I have trouble with seeing a place as taking such an active role in events. If anything—as, I think, the articles by Kevin Rozario and James Connolly would suggest—places can reflect social and economic changes, rather than direct them. In this sense, I think we should should see nature—whether on the frontier or in the city—as a passive actor, being acted upon and responding  accordingly.

A Turnerian himself—though certainly a disillusioned one—Cronon adopts much of Turner’s treatment of nature and place as actors in Nature’s Metropolis. Chicago’s expansion, he asserts in his prologue, was foreshadowed by “nature’s own prophecies” and “expressed natural power” though the product of human ingenuity (13). But as Cronon goes on challenge what is, in fact, natural and unnatural about the city, I think we can begin to see the clearest depictions of nature and place as historical actors much like we might consider persons to be. As Sarah previously highlighted, the natural landscape surrounding Chicago directly influenced its development. From its central location to its proximity to Lake Michigan, the area in Upper Illinois that would one day be Chicago drew the eye and inspired the rhetoric of early “boosters.” But as Cronon highlights, Chicagoans’ struggle to overcome its natural disadvantages also shape much of their story. For example, to compensate for its muddiness, Chicagoans literally raised the city in its early history. What’s interesting in Cronon’s treatment of nature, however, is that, in addition to  environmental factors, he treats economic and technological impacts as natural—he calls them “Second Nature,” whereby humans adapt nature form new environments. Such “natural” actors include an ever-expanding, national railroad network and Chicago’s economic  alliance with the industrialized Northeast. These “First Nature” and “Second Nature” forces drastically influenced the emergence of Chicago as “Nature’s Metropolis.” What I found most interesting, however, were instances where these seemingly disparate natural forces converged. Cronon highlights one particularly interesting example of this phenomenon: the railroad. Economically, the railroad cut back on Chicago’s seasonal economic cycles and strengthened the city’s trading alliances with other regions. Environmentally, the railroad transformed and blended into the natural landscape. But the railroad was also influenced by other natural forces. In Chicago, proximity to Lake Michigan and the Erie Canal influenced travel rates, while its central location attracted both the eastern and western ends of the railroad web. In this sense, the railroad did not exist in “First Nature” or “Second Nature” exclusively, but in both. As Cronon writes, the railroad “partook of the supernatural, drawing upon a mysterious creative energy” (72). This, I argue, suggests that Cronon treats “nature” much as Turner treats the frontier—an omnipotent force as much as a historical actor.

So, in reading Cronon, how should we understand his Turnerian bias?

I’ll leave this for discussion in class. But—as I argue above—I think that Cronon simply recapitulates Turner, substituting “nature” for the frontier and endorsing a natural teleology for the Chicago’s preeminent rise as does Turner for American democratization.