Urban History, Real & Imagined: Jonathan Lee’s The Great Mistake

WRITTEN BY MARLIE PARKER WASSERMAN

Historical fiction at its best, Jonathan Lee’s The Great Mistake (Knopf US / Granta UK, 2021) tells the nearly forgotten story of Andrew Haswell Green, the civic leader behind so many of the grand institutions and spaces of New York City—Central Park, the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, the Bronx Zoo. It is hard to name another person who has transformed New York to the same extent, until, perhaps, Robert Moses more than half a century later. Green’s path crosses the paths of better-known men, including Frederick Law Olmsted, William “Boss” Tweed, Washington Roebling, and especially Samuel Tilden, who served as mentor and became a close friend. Readers, especially those familiar with New York City or urban history, will ask themselves repeatedly why they have not heard the name Andrew Haswell Green. Lee never presents a direct answer but provides hints. Green was not a larger-than-life character. He collaborated well with others and never grabbed the spotlight. He focused more on carrying out his plans than enhancing his reputation. Lee writes with engaging detail about the city and Green’s accomplishments, without ever allowing history to overwhelm characterization and plot.

It is not a spoiler to mention that at age eighty-three Green was murdered, because this occurs on the first page of the book. Readers learn the killer’s identity soon after. The lingering mystery is not the who or the how, but the why. The killer’s motivation serves as the central puzzle of the story and connects with aspects of the city’s history, including inadequate housing, poverty, race relations, class relations, and prostitution. Although most of Lee’s characters are white men who are born into or attain privilege, the killer is a man of color, about whom New Yorkers knew little except for his name. Lee persuasively imagines this character’s route to murder. But the spine of the story is the victim, Andrew Haswell Green, not the killer. Green starts out as a timid farm boy. Poorly educated, Green cannot afford to buy books. Until halfway into the novel readers will not envision him as a mover and shaker of even a small hamlet, let alone New York City. On his path to a life filled with accomplishments, he makes many self-perceived mistakes, perhaps explaining Lee’s book title. Even once Green attains prominence, many of his eccentricities remain.

Lee discovered Andrew Haswell Green almost by accident.  A memorial bench in Central Park bears a dedication to Green, labeling him “Genius of Central Park, Father of Greater New York.” This inscription, and accounts of Green’s newsworthy murder and the high-profile investigation that followed, sparked Lee’s curiosity. Lee explains that rather than accepting the age-old advice to write what you know, he decided to write about what he wanted to know. That led to vast research, not only into New York City history but also life on a Massachusetts farm, where Green grew up, and life on a Trinidad sugar plantation, where he worked before training as a lawyer. “To spend six years researching a book,” Lee explained to me, “requires a sustained desire to discover. And Andrew Haswell Green, his unlikely beginnings and strange ending, inspired that desire in me.”

Throughout much of the novel readers see Green struggling with his sexuality. Many authors of historical fiction, when portraying the life of a historical figure who left no memoirs or letters of a private nature, find it difficult to write with confidence about their subject’s sexuality. Not Lee. He handles Green’s struggle deftly and sensitively. Lee has given careful thought to this aspect of his portrayal of Green. “With any character, historical or otherwise, their inner life in the end belongs only to them—a novel is not the place to go for certainties. From diaries and correspondence I spent a long time looking at, it was clear to me that Andrew Green and Samuel Tilden shared an intense love, consistent with the kind that had them described as ‘confirmed bachelors.’ I didn’t feel the need to label that love in the novel, but I would say the records suggest it was the central relationship of each of their lives, while also being probably unconsummated. Which perhaps makes The Great Mistake in some sense a story of missed love—of desires that never quite align—but also a story of friendship and companionship that I found touching, whatever you read or don’t read into it. I wanted to try and capture on the page the complexity and individuality of the relationship as I found it—the specific dynamic between these two specific people.” Lee speculates that the fact that Green never had a wife or children may have contributed to muting his fame.

Lee’s craft is evident on every page. Particularly noteworthy are his decisions to avoid quotation marks even though he creates a significant amount of dialogue, and to avoid setting off in italics his quotes from newspapers. His explanation for these decisions provides food for thought for every writer of historical fiction. “I tried to explore different ways to break down the feeling of fictionality that comes with a novel being a novel. Getting rid of quotation marks for dialogue was one small way to do that. The quote marks seemed to say ‘this was really said on this day in 1903, in this exact form of words’—whereas I don’t even know what I said over breakfast this morning. I wanted more baked-in uncertainty than that, an acknowledgement that the past is in some ways as much a work of imagination as the present. Incorporating newspaper quotes in italics early in the book, and then assimilating them into the text so that by the end of the book there are no italics, was also part of that.” Whether everyone writing historical fiction closely tied to historical figures needs to follow suit remains an individual choice, but I believe all novelists can benefit from Lee’s observations.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Marlie Parker Wasserman is the author of The Murderess Must Die (2021). marliewasserman.com

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 97 (August 2021)


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