New College of the Humanities

Nature's Metropolis: Chicago And The Great West

by William Cronon

Timothy Jacobson | Published in
  • Nature's Metropolis: Chicago And The Great West
    William Cronon - W.W. Norton, 1991 - 530 pp. - £27.50

Specialisation, that much-lamented curse of the age: nobody likes it but everybody does it. The best people specialise and sub-specialise. We all know the orthopaedic surgeon who does knees, the mergers-and- acquisitions attorney who does takeovers, the academic who does, well, pick a smallish subject, and you will find a specialist or two in it, busy elaborating definitions, establishing boundaries, justifying the grant. The historian who is author of this remarkable volume sees history differently, and a bracing refresher it is that he gives us.

As history broke apart over the last several decades, and as anxiety deepened over the fate of the cities, urban history blossomed. Lots of cities got histories, some of them quite good ones (though Chicago was not among them). None got anything like Nature's Metropolis. William Cronon would not think of himself as an 'urban historian' at all. He has written one other book (Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England), which established him as an historical environmentalist. But environmental history as Cronon practices it turns the very notion of 'speciality' on its head. Here, Cronon the anti-specialist confirms himself as a historian of our and history's connectedness. If you desire reacquaintance with the breadth of learning that once was history's hallmark, read this book.

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