What we talk about when we talk about William Cronon

Nature's Metropolis (Norton, 1991)

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Some years back I was a judge on the American Society for Environmental History’s prize committee for the book of the year. It was a great opportunity to take a measure of the field, and to get a lot of free books. At some point, I noticed that almost all of the 30 or so books, whether dealing with parks in California or cattle in Tanzania, mentioned William Cronon. His work was said to speak directly to the topic, or it was an inspiration. Or maybe he was the author’s graduate supervisor or editor. Or all of the above. In one case, Cronon was cited in the dedicationand the first sentence of the acknowledgmentsand the first sentence of the introduction! A crippling case of Cronon’s disease.

That experience has got me noticing how Cronon tends to be cited these days – for example, in the leading journal in our field, Environmental History (full disclosure: I’m on the editorial board). Far too frequently he is the recipient of drive-by mention: a quick, often unwarranted reference to his work, and then the author moves on. Some examples? There’s the uncited, “Those who take seriously William Cronon’s sage admonition to focus our attention on issues of sustainable use ….” Or how about a second author’s, “More recently, William Cronon encapsulated this sentiment with the idea that nature ‘is a profoundly human construction’….” Did we really not know that before him? Apparently not, because, as a third author states, “Doing so helps remind us, as William Cronon argued in his celebrated essay ‘The Trouble with Wilderness,’ that humans are part of the natural world….”

Let me get out of the way what I’m not saying. I’m not saying the emperor has no clothes. William Cronon is – assume the “arguably” in all that follows – the leading historian in our field, the best essayist, one of the best stylists, editor of the leading monograph series, author of our field’s best bridge to historical geography, supervisor and mentor to a slew of scholars, and a leading academic activist. Teaching in Wisconsin, the emperor’s not just clothed, he’s layered.

I am saying two things. My general point is that scholars do scholarship a disservice when we overquote, overcite or, let’s face it, simply namedrop. We should quote other scholars only when they’ve stated an idea so perfectly that we couldn’t possibly do better ourselves – or when they’ve stated an idea so wrongheaded or wrongheadedly that we must quote them in disbelief before disputing or improving upon them. We should cite scholars only on the same occasions. We are in the “yes, but” business. If all we’re doing is encouraging readers to read another scholar’s work, we’d be better off not writing at all, because we’re only increasing the textual noise in the world that keeps their work from being noticed in the first place. If you can only say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.

My specific point is that environmental historians have been doing William Cronon a disservice in recent years by referring to rather than responding to his work. About sixty different Environmental History authors of essays and book reviews have mentioned Cronon over the past six years, but only one has really engaged his scholarship for more than a sentence or two. Cronon’s books have tended to be so good and so debated when they’re first published that after a while they’re not really debated at all. He’s become the sort of author you’re supposed to “reread” rather than “read.” But the man’s too young for us to make him the field’s patron saint, and his writing’s too valuable to be treated as sacrosanct. I read Nature’s Metropolis in big gulps when it came out in 1991, and never really returned to it, so much of my understanding of it today is undoubtedly contaminated, secondhand. It’s time I reread – no, read – it.

Alan MacEachern is Associate Professor of History at the University of Western Ontario and the Director of NiCHE

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I am the author of Becoming Green Gables (spring 2024), The Summer Trade (with Edward MacDonald, 2022), & The Miramichi Fire (2020), & the editor of the print/open-access Canadian History & Environment series at University of Calgary Press. I was Director of NiCHE, 2004-15. Contact me at amaceach@uwo.ca.


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