The Top Reasons to See William Cronon at CNU

Heather Smith's picture


Next Wednesday, June 1, at 5:15pm, I’m headed to Madison to hear the speech of a lifetime.  I’m a geography geek and William Cronon is one of the high priests of my field.

Every year, I assign Nature’s Metropolis to my students to learn about industrial-era Chicago. At first, they may groan and roll their eyes when they see this two-inch thick book, but by the end of reading, they are always enthusiastically sharing intelligent ideas in great discussions about the cyclical relationship between cities and nature. 

Why is Cronon's example so critical to the 19th annual CNU?

Nature’s Metropolis and Cronon’s other material have an uncanny ability to:

1) Explain complicated things: Every year, my class goes on a field trip to the Chicago Board of Trade.  No other book offers such a clear explanation of how Chicago’s grain futures market was created. In today’s economy, where job creation is the Holy Grail for politicians, the example of the futures market shows a robust creation that has kept thousands of financial jobs in Chicago for over a century.  Cronon illustrates that sometimes job creation boils down to inventions that keep finding new things to sell, whether it is a seat at the Board of Trade or weather commodities.

2) Cronon is an academic rock star.  Not only was he been awarded the Bancroft Prize and Chicago Tribune Heartland Award for the Best Nonfiction book when Nature’s Metropolis was published, Cronon's also earned multiple teaching accolades, having earned the distinction of Rhodes Scholar, Danforth Fellow, Guggenheim Fellow, and MacArthur Fellow.  Simply out, Cronon is a genius at telling historical stories about places you only thought you knew. Cronon is also passionate about citizenship, the republic and academic freedoms.   For more information on his debate with Wisconsin Republicans that was at the center of Wisconsin politics this spring, click here.

Lastly, Cronon's CNU 19 event is free and open to the public. A preeminent geographer, a celebrated academic, and he’s speaking for free- yes, free! This is why you’ll see me in the front row next Wednesday night at the Capitol Theatre at the Overture Center. Come join us.



Nature's Metropolis rivals

Nature's Metropolis rivals Donald Miller's City of the Century (and though completely different, Nelson Algren's epic Chicago: City on the Make), in being one of the best, most definitive books ever written about Chicago. Cronon's ability to mix the story of Chicagoland's agricultural prowess, amazing industrial capacity, brutish boosterism, and culture of innovation - financial and otherwise-, all set up against the backdrop of an age guided by Manifest Destiny, makes it a must read.

"Metropolis" as "mother city"

On the way out of the Capitol Theatre last night, I overheard someone say, "I'd never heard of this guy, but now I want to read all his books."

Hey, me, too. Well, actually we had all heard of him and his dispute with Governor Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans.

But "Nature's Metropolis" intrigues me as a title. "Metropolis" and "metropolitan" have a lot of specific associations today, but both words are rooted in the idea of a "mother city" in relation to its (her?) hinterlands. As Professor Cronon pointed out, the wheat field is connected to the big city because the McCormick reaper was made in Chicago. With no reaper, Midwestern agriculture would be very different. And I'm sure Cronon's book makes countless other connections of this type, too.


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