Nature as a Counterpoint to Cronon

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In the introduction to Nature’s Metropolis, William Cronon paints a picture of his childhood and the opposition of rural and urban that he claims to falsely have considered to be polar opposites, unconnected and fundamentally opposing.  I connected strongly with his childhood view, having also felt a persistent pull towards the undeveloped since my own childhood. For myself, as for Cronon, nature was pure and innocent, and the city was sophisticated, modern, and morally ambiguous. In arguing the inexorable relationship between rural and urban, he discounts this view, adopting instead a combination of Von Thunen’s Central Place Theory and Fredrick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis.  While his argument is convincing, it is fundamentally Marxist.  For Cronon, commerce and economics drive development.  I take issue with this simplified view of society, questioning the existence of nature preserves and National Parks, entities devoted to pleasure and exploration, in a world driven by commerce.  I see this government imitative as proof that there are other forces at work in development.  However, it is even more strongly present in the private sphere-the quest for a rural getaway that has existed for as long as there have been densely populated areas in America, as exemplified in the construction of the Biltmore House by the Vanderbilt’s in the late 1800’s.  The forested mountains that we see from overlooks such as Caesar’s Head (a childhood favorite) result from more than government preservation.  As a whole, we seem to recognize the innate value in the natural, and it is evidenced in the forests that still clothe our mountains.  However, that value is far from commercial, and if economics drove all development, the mountains would have been developed long ago.  Therefore, I argue that the continued existence of large quantities of forestland in the American Southeast act as a counterpoint to Cronon’s assertion that economics are the fundamental driver of development.

I would like to add to Catherine’s point about the Davidson College Ecological Preserve. It is indeed second growth forest, and she questions how natural it is because of this.  However, if you take a look around at this new growth forest, you see so many other physical signs of human tampering.  You see the wide swath cleared last year for the gas lines, still bare from the destruction.  You see the abandoned house, a favorite of students for midnight jaunts.  You see the goats, an introduction into the Davidson woods, but their presence indicates an effort to correct another invasive species gone wild, Kudzu.  The list goes on, from the boathouse to the power line.  In this wild place, the wildest that Davidson has to offer, we are never far from man’s influence.  This raises the question, also raised by Cronon in his introduction, what is wilderness?  Does it exist in this modern age?  I don’t know the answer, but as a nature lover, I am glad that the question can still be asked today.

Confusing the boundary between city and country

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In Nature’s Metropolis, William Cronon makes the argument that the stories of Chicago and the Great West are lacking unless told together.  And while the regions look, sound and smell different – they both represent America’s marketplace evolution and the process of abstracting commercial value from physical landscapes.

To begin, it seems to be really incredible – truly a symbol of mankind’s determination – that Chicago was able to rise out of the swampy lowlands. It had none of the natural advantages found in great cities else where around the world . . no fertile valley’s, no great harbours, no broad rivers. Instead, its creation depended solely on the force of human will”(15). Cronon, although he seems wary of using the term ‘progress’, demonstrates how humans, when faced with opportunity, will prove extremely innovative. In doing so, nature becomes, as Emerson writes the mere “double of man” (15). So while the environment does play a role, ultimately it appears, culture begets culture.

But how do humans decide in what ways to manipulate nature – to convert it from a pristine wilderness to a cultivated garden? “The ways people value the products of the soil, and decide how much it costs to get those products to market, together shape the landscape we inhabit” (50). I think Eli said it best in his post, “Yet, part of the ethos of America, especially of the past, which I am beginning to understand is the desire for commercial hegemony.” And in this sense, understanding Chicago from theories of economic geography is extremely valuable. For after all, Chicago out of all of the cities in the Midwest most effectively reshaped its land to become the ultimate gateway city to the west. (Catherine did a great job in her post discussing the importance of transportation. Both manmade, and to a lesser extent, natural.)

Nature’s Metropolis provides a strong argument in explaining not only the rise of Chicago, but also in the altering of America’s landscapes for the cultivating and trading of commodities. Whether urban or rural, these regions fundamentally reshaped the other – confusing our traditional notions between natural and artificial. “Gauged by how we feel about them, the distance we travel between city and country is measured more in the mind than on the ground” (8). Chicago proves to be an extremely effective case study – erasing the boundaries between country and city.

A Different Perspective: Man vs. Creator

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What seems to be characteristic in all the posts made thus far in response to the Cronon piece entitled “Nature’s Metropolis” is a questioning of the legitimacy of juxtaposing city and country. This questioning has taken the form of an interrogation of the natural vs. unnatural dichotomy where the notion of humanity and its naturalness is explored. Catherine Schmidt articulates the debate between those that would have us believe that all things are nature and those that would have us believe that nothing is nature. She sides with the former explaining how ultimately humanity and its creations are in a sense natural. Sherwood Callaway makes a similar point, albeit in a different manner, our view of the city as unnatural stems from an unprecedented “newness” in a sense. According to Callaway, the drastically unprecedented product of progression, in the form of industrialization and urbanization, caused us to see the city as at odds with the country. While these are valid points and important ideas, I fear we may be taking a more-narrow minded approach.

The real question here is why do we feel the need to separate country and city, and most importantly why do we ascribe to them adjectives of morality? In the beginning of Cronon’s piece it becomes clear that the dominant narrative would hold the country as good, pure, and beautiful, while the city is described as evil, dark, and almost mystical in nature. When one enters the city he or she is aware of all the bad, men that try to steal belongings and the polluted air that fills the lungs, that transpires here, however they are entranced by its strength as an almost prophecy for the future of human “triumph over nature.” Here is where we find the key to this debate and the answers to the aforementioned questions. For centuries man has crafted a narrative wherein he, the protagonist, battles with nature in an ongoing fight to control his own existence. Man creates houses to mitigate the effect of temperature and weather change on his ability to live. Man creates farmland as a way to coax the earth into yielding greater supplies of food in a sustainable fashion in order to further control his ability to live. Man creates air-conditioning, weather-proof building plans, unsinkable ships, state-of-the-art airplanes, all in an effort to control the conditions under which he lives in order to make them more favorable.

In this manner, the city and the country are essentially the same, as other students have so astutely pointed out. They are both monuments to this great struggle between man and nature; examples of man bending nature to his will. The only difference between the two is that one appears to be more drastic than the other, but this is a superficial distinction at best. But when we examine this great struggle, a new development in the ramifications of the newest development becomes clear. Although the struggle is essentially the same, there is a small difference in the interpretation of what these new developments means. Agriculture can be characterized by man struggling with nature causing it to yield more of its bounty to us in the form of foodstuffs. City development can be characterized by man struggling against nature, putting a concrete barrier between human and Earth privileging his creation over “hers.” From this springs interesting questions about creation. In his piece Cronon states, “to see one’s world as a self-created place opened the doorway to heroic achievement, but finally denied any other Creator be it Nature or God.” From this realization stems discomfort. If we have finally “done it” so to speak, then what does that mean for the things we have yet to control like death, some forms of disease, poverty, or discrimination? The city then becomes a symbol for despair in a way that the country does not. Perhaps this is where the narrative of the good country, where God remains supreme, and the bad city where man reigns unchallenged comes from. However, it is clear that the root of this debate is a human discomfort with encountering environments that would appear to be engineered entirely by us.

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.

Cronon’s Chicago

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There are two approaches to understanding nature, and neither debates the inclusion of humans or cities in the definition of nature. There is the all-welcoming approach: nature is everything, and there is the nihilist approach: nature is nothing. Personally, I don’t believe the second approach because if nature is nothing, then nothing would be everything. An example of the interconnectedness between all elements on this earth, or nature, is sunsets which environmentalist William Cronon presents on page 73 of Nature’s Metropolis. “’Fancy the rail gone, and we have neither telegraph, nor schoolhouse, nor anything of all this but the sunset.’” But is a sunset any more or less natural depending on the “telegraph” or “schoolhouse”? I argue no. The sun slips over the earth’s edge leaving us, in our place on earth, behind. This phenomenon occurs everyday regardless of what tree grows or what electricity pumps through the wires. Does this sunset vary for the people of Los Angeles? The anthropogenic pollution may augment the light refraction, and make the sunset more beautiful, but it is impossible to separate these factors and produce the same result.

It is based off this concept that William Jackson Turner, in “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”, and later, William Cronon, categorize cities as part of nature. Chicago was able to develop because of ecological advantages that allowed humans to survive (glaciers in carved out lakes and deposited fertile fine-grained soil which supported grains and grasses which then attracted herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores). As Eli points out in “Chicago: the power of space”, the natural benefits boosters publicized did not seem to be so beneficial after all, as the city had to spend thousands of dollars dredging sand from the “natural harbor”. In this manner, nature can be both an attraction and a deterrent. Chicago is unique because it was about to thrive (not just develop) because of the transcontinental railroad. Contrary to Marston’s post, I believe Cronon attributes the rise of Chicago greatly to the transcontinental railroad (see Nature’s Metropolis: “Rails and Water”), while still acknowledging the environmental foundations that even allowed people to settle in this region. Without the railroad, the city would have had to continue to fight for its purpose, however there is a reason the railroad was established in Chicago and not in Minneapolis or Green Bay.

As a concluding point, when I think of the most “natural” place on Davidson College campus, I think of the Davidson College Ecological Preserve: 200 acres of “untouched” land. I think most students would agree. However, would most students be surprised to learn that these 200 acres are actually a second-growth forest, meaning that it is not the original land that was there 500 years before European explorers reached the new world? This ecological preserve also served as farmland, and potentially a golf course, before the school acquired it and allowed the native forest to re-emerge.

Theorizing A City

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Reading the blog posts for this week thus far, I think Sherwood, Jean, and Sarah all make excellent points about the natural and unnatural juxtaposition theorized by Cronon.  There is no doubt that Chicago rose because of its natural geography and the locational advantage as the “gateway” to the west.  I though Sherwood’s aside was particularly fascinating, pointing out almost irony behind the modern definition of natural.  Just because farmers use land, does that mean they are any more natural than others?  Sherwood mentions the cultivation of land, which I think brings a very interesting debate about how much we can change nature for it to still be considered natural.

On a separate note, the element of the introduction and the first two chapters that stood out most was the near overwhelming amount of Chicago urban theory.  Cronon brings theorists and historians like Sullivan, Garland, Turner, Von Thunen, “Boosters,” and many others as people all trying to explain how and why Chicago grew.  From the vast array of opinions, it almost seems like the rise of Chicago is almost too complex to explain using one theory alone.  Every argument made by the historians above can be challenged.  The booster’s argument, ranging from Scott’s economic to others focused more on the relationship between the city and the land, only accounts for small periods of Chicago’s history.  The theory of the concentric rings seems unlikely as you split the city into different regions.  No one theory adequately explains the complexity of Chicago.  Almost taking the Hewitt argument towards disasters (how every disaster must be looked at separately), I believe we cannot summarize or compare the rise of Chicago to any other city.  While Chicago had the geographical foundation, the city became great for so many individual reasons.  No one factor or theory can summarize the cities rise to power.

To finish off, I believe one aspect that Cronon and the several other Chicago theorists severally underestimate is local climate.  As I am writing this blog post at home in Massachusetts, desperately hoping my evening flight doesn’t get cancelled due to the foot of snow we are getting right now, I wonder how much climate and weather factored into the rise of these cities. Cities with harsh winters like Boston and New York arose because they did not necessarily rely on their local natural products.  Trade and industry drove their expansion.  Meanwhile a city like Chicago had an entirely different function but with the same “natural” problems.  Chicago has similar, if not worse, weather than other big Northeast cities.  They have the snow, the wind, and the freezing temperatures.  All of this has made me think about how it was possible for Chicago to be the center of Midwestern agricultural trade when little could grow locally because of the long harsh winters.  It takes Cronon two chapters to first mention problems of the impeding weather, saying that only through the building of railroads could crops be transported easily.   This makes me question whether Chicago could have risen without the use of modern transportation.  While Chicago was clearly the best geographically Midwestern city for trade, if technology wasn’t evolving around the 1830’s there was no way the harsh climate of Chicago would have allowed the city to grow so astronomically.  Cronon’s book severely underestimates the rise of science, technology, and industrialization in Chicago’s history.

“The City’s Place in Nature”

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Blog Post 4 (for Thursday, 2/6)

Sarah Walters points out in her post that “as a child, Cronon inherently called the rural farms “natural” and the city “unnatural.” Except for the sake of tradition, it doesn’t seem to make sense that urbanity is constantly juxtaposed with nature. We’ve touched on this in class— if cities are made by humans, and humans are natural, aren’t cities also natural? William Cronon identifies this problem in his book Nature’s Metropolis, writing: “putting the city outside nature meant sending humanity into the same exile” (8).

Perhaps we juxtapose urbanity and nature because the notion of “naturalness” with regards to one’s surroundings was much less prominent before the industrial revolution. This period of capitalism, technological advancement and urbanization created unprecedented environments. Smoggy and crowded, industrial era cities did not resemble anything that had existed before.

It was much easier to recognize cities during the middle ages or early modern period as part of a “natural” trajectory of human progress than it was for industrialized cities. Basically, these new cities were considered mutated versions of the cleaner, less crowded urban environments that existed before.

The urbanity/nature juxtaposition, it seems, is not for distinguishing between cities and non-cities, as it is usually used, but rather for distinguishing between industrial era urban environments and whatever preceded them.

Undermining this juxtaposition, Cronon suggests that the city itself is maybe a natural entity for other reasons that its association with humanity: “by massing the combined energies and destines of hundreds of thousands of people, the city, despite its human origins, seemed to express a natural power” (13). The massive, growing, energized urban environment seemed to posses a mind of its own. Furthermore, it seemed to be out of human control in the same way that natural forces are out of human control: “it seemed at times to radiate an energy that could only be superhuman” (13).

So perhaps the city is unjustly opposed to nature after all.

Aside: what makes a rural environment any more “natural” than an urban one? Both places have been shaped in ways that do not represent a natural state. Cronon describes the rural landscape surrounding Chicago as “yielding not grass and red-winged blackbirds but wheat, corn, and hogs” (7). These symbols of cultivation demonstrate that, in the making of both rural and urban environments, the landscape has been transformed— though perhaps unequally.

Natural Chicago

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As jeatikinson’s post mentioned, Cronon describes the advantages Chicago has geographically as a city—convenient transportation, natural resources, central location, nearby bodies of water. This argument reminded me of Kenneth Hewitt’s emphasis on geography. According to Hewitt, geography is one of the most important aspects of a city. I think that jeatikinson, Cronon, and Hewitt all make a valid argument about locations being important. Unlike Hewitt though, I wouldn’t say it’s the sole determinant in a successful city although it is a major concern. Cronon suggests that geography alone is not the only factor, which I think might be more reasonable than geography and geography alone. He writes, “natural avenues of transportation might play important roles in shaping a city’s future, but the preexisting structures of the human economy—second nature, not first nature—determined which routes and which cities developed most quickly.” Jeatikinson also mentions how New York City has similar qualities to Chicago. It too served as a sort of gateway like Chicago served as a gateway for the west, as elcaldwell notes in his post. New York was a funnel for many immigrants into America.

Cronon’s discussion of what “natural” actually means reminded me of my essay on the “State of the Emergency” exhibit. I saw that even in seemingly unnatural disasters like Hiroshima, nature could still be affected. As a child, Cronon inherently called the rural farms “natural” and the city “unnatural.” An older Cronon wonders whether plowed fields are any more natural “than the streets, buildings, and parks of Chicago. For Cronon, humans have drastically change nature in both situations. This idea, however, implies humans are somehow unnatural. I think the distinction Cronon attempted to make as a child might be better termed country/rural vs. urban. It seems term “nature” almost needs to be better defined. Are humans not part of “nature”? I mean we are technically living beings and a type of animal, but at the same time, a railroad is not a living being although living beings create it. Some of Cronon’s argument makes it seem as if humans try to count new technologies as natural, for instance Cronon writes of “rhetorical mysticism when they likened the railroads to a force of nature, but there can be no question that the railroads acted as a powerful force upon nature, so much so that the logic they expressed in so many intricate ways itself finally came to seem natural.

Another point I find interesting in Cronon’s argument is about the far-reaching effects of Chicago. Chicago is removed from much of the developing West. It is not obviously tied to “the great tall grass prairies would give way to cornstalks and wheatfields, The white pines and the north woods would become lumber, and the forests of the Great Lakes would turn to stumps. The vast herds of bison…would die violent deaths.” Still, Chicago, according to Cronon, is central in all these events. A small pebble can create large ripples that hit the distant shore.

Divisible Yet Indivisible

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Coming from Long Island, New York I have been exposed to one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the world (unbiased of course). NYC shares many characteristics that Cronon describes Chicago to have that makes Chicago successful because both are located in central areas, surrounding bodies of water, and serve as central hubs that have easy access for transportation and natural resources. As many real estate moguls will tell you, location is key when choosing a place to live. The same goes for developing a successful city. Focusing on the history of Chicago and the arguments surrounding it, the city parallels with Turners understanding of the Western Frontier. By understanding the relationships of nature in Chicago, we can begin to understand the development of the west. In Eli’s post he accurately describes how Chicago served as a gateway to the west and through Cronon illustrates how Chicago came about as a result of the natural boundaries.


The most powerful part of the prologue of Cronon’s “Cloud over Chicago” was his focus both on the divisible and indivisible aspects of nature versus city. Beginning with a personal narrative of his first experiences of Chicago, he focuses on the grey smog, dense smell and awe that he felt as he passed through the city. Cronon emphasizes a lot on the descriptions of the city and he battles with the idea of natural versus unnatural. As an devoted environmentalist Cronon professes his initial dislike for the city of Chicago and how it was an unnatural place that clogged the rural west and deprived it of its natural beauty. However, Cronon comes to realize as he digs deeper into the history of Chicago and the surrounding area that his idea of natural farmlands and rural west had too been altered by the human hand. This brings me back to concentrating on Cronon’s dilemma with trying to separate farms and cities but realizing that there is greater interdependence then initially realized. A  quote that  portrayed Cronon’s struggle as an environmentalist and a realist is, “The boundary between natural and unnatural shades almost imperceptibly into the boundary between nonhuman and human, with wilderness and the city seeming to lie at opposite poles-the one pristine and unfilled, the other corrupt and unredeemed”(8). Many people and environmentalists believe this idea of the evils of the city in Cronon’s description, and analysis of Chicago he exposes an even greater relationship between humans and the world.

Closing the prologue Cronon faces the argument of city and nature. How we perceive Chicago in terms of nature is how we will be able to face the future of mankind, “whether we wish to ‘control’ nature or ‘preserve’ it- we unconsciously affirm our belief that we ourselves are unnatural. Nature is the place where we are not” (18). In saying this, It is undeniable that Chicago was able to succeed because of its natural elements that are particularly welcoming to the foundations of civilization. Chicago as a hub is important for the expansion of the west and our continuing development of understanding the Western Frontier.

Chicago: the power of space

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A couple years ago, I heard about a UW-Madison professor who was under attack by local Republicans, after criticizing actions by Governor Scott Walker to strip unions of collective bargaining rights and insinuating connections between ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization with strong ties to the Koch brothers). The university was subject to a FOIA request on his emails as they might pertain to Republicans, and while UW did release some of his emails, they also withheld others, and argued that the FOIA request was essentially an attack on academic freedom. That professor, I recently learned, was Bill Cronon.

I share the above because it is a personal connection to Cronon, given that I was born and raised in Madison, and count it as my home. I think that one of the greatest struggles in life is self-understanding, and I have found that history is an incredibly effective avenue through which to pursue that understanding. From before early modern Europe to 20th century America and beyond, everything that we understand about our past informs us of our present. Perhaps that is why, as a midwesterner who lives three hours from Chicago and has spent days and weeks there and in its suburbs, I found Cronon’s work so interesting. While I realize that it is a long assignment, I encourage you to read it. It is revealing and fascinating in ways that pushed me to think differently about a wide variety of things.

Turner argued that in the frontier we saw civilization rebuild itself. Yet, what we truly saw was a civilization that already existed push its way into seemingly boundless space in a way that had never been done before. Cronon wrote of American imperial desires, and certainly these existed. Westward expansion was its own form of imperialism, and not many years after the Chicago fire the U.S. expanded overseas. Yet, part of the ethos of America, especially of the past, which I am beginning to understand is the desire for commercial hegemony. The empire that Americans envisioned was commercial, not political. This vision has largely been realized, and a plethora of examples come to mind: the Panama canal, banana republics, our dominance of the World Bank and the IMF, the massive amount of money which foreign citizens and governments our willing to lend us, New York as the center of the financial world, our power to affect drug policy in Latin America, the power of free trade agreements to make or break developing countries.

The history of Chicago is fascinating. Boosters argued that the city had the natural benefits which would enable it to succeed: it’s location on the Chicago river, which would serve as a natural harbor on the Great Lakes and its central location. Yet, these benefits did not seem to be so beneficial after all. The government was forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to allow ships passage on to the Chicago River, and the swamp-like characteristics of the surrounding area limited passage to the city for a significant part of the year. And yet, Chicago still managed to achieve significance with the building of a canal that connected it to the east. Then, railroads expanded, first with a line intended to stretch from Chicago to Galena, and then the Illinois Central railroad. Over time, the “geography of capital,” as Cronon brilliantly describes it, came to favor Chicago at least as much as its natural geography.

I am humbled by my inability to adequately communicate Cronon’s sublime understanding of Chicago, but I will try to contribute my own thoughts. It is amazing to me that Chicago succeeded at all, for every benefit seemed insignificant and every drawback, paramount. Yet, it did succeed. Perhaps the relentless boosterism should take credit, though it seems that other cities had as many proponents as Chicago. Rather than ask why Chicago succeeded, perhaps we might acknowledge that some midwestern city had to succeed in such a way. Chicago functioned as a gateway to the west, and while it did not have to be Chicago which succeeded, it had to be some city. As Cronon illustrated, Chicago came to exist both on the boundary of two literal watersheds, as on the boundary of two watersheds of capital. In the later parts of its development, its function as the terminal for so many rail lines made its success inevitable. Clearly, however, the competition offered by transportation on waterways to eastern markets made rail lines compete, which I imagine had some positive effect.

I also want to add that I thoroughly appreciated Cronon’s elucidation of railway economics, with high fixed costs, which is a cornerstone of microeconomic thinking and, I think, helps the reader to understand why the railways, though mighty concentrations of capital, were not immune to bankruptcy.

I think that Marston made a good point regarding  Cronon and Turner: whether or not Cronon changed one’s mind on Turner, he certainly cast him and his work in a better light. Cronon forced me, though ready to heap criticism upon Turner, to reconsider his thesis in a different and more sympathetic light. Cronon’s work pushed me to examine the ways in which Turner had contributed to historiography and to American imaginings of the frontier and our history. Rather than endearing Turner to me, this makes me more wary. Consider, please, the way in which Turner has shaped historical views of the west and the frontier. Consider, again, the way in which Cronon is able to recast Turner’s work and defend it. These examples illumine the significant power that historiography and general academic exegesis have to shape our perceptions. Perhaps we should be even more careful and critical in our readings, so as not to be led astray.