Jonathan Lee has said that coming upon a bench in a rather obscure part of Central Park which referred to Andrew Haswell Green as the “Creating Genius of Central Park” and the “Father of Greater New York” started him on the journey of writing The Great Mistake.
In reading the novel I too was discovering someone I had never heard of, that even most New Yorkers have apparently never heard of. I found myself coming to care very much for the man who had accomplished so much, but who hid his private self, who perhaps brought about great public works to assuage his loneliness. Lee doesn’t show us what was involved in helping to bring about the unification of the boroughs, which was called by some at the time “The Great Mistake of 1898.” Nor does Lee present the work behind the creation of Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History, and the New York Public Library, all of which exist in large part because of Green’s efforts. Instead, we see Andrew as a boy on a failed Massachusetts farm, an apprentice in a New York City shop, a supervisor on a sugar plantation in Trinidad, a budding lawyer in New York, and eventually a prominent man in the city.
It is not the touting of accomplishments that Lee seems to be after, but the exploration of how it might have felt to be Green, to have struggled with self-doubt, with feelings of being an imposter, with his sexual orientation. It seems that all of the difficulties of his life are what lead to his greatness, yet this is not a tale that glorifies the rise of a poor boy to great heights. There is more the idea that Andrew is determined to succeed. Lee suggests that perhaps Green sought to bring into existence these institutions to serve all New Yorkers in part to atone for what he had done in Trinidad, and for the displacement of people during the creation of Central Park.
Threaded through the narrative about Green’s life are chapters about the detective, McClusky, who must try to figure out why Andrew was shot. There is no doubt as to who the shooter was, but McClusky knows that he must also provide the motive behind the shooting, another “great mistake.” Lee imbues McClusky with a touching depth of character. McClusky has come to a realization. “Police work, the great deflater. You puffed out your ego those first few years, making yourself invincible, saying foolish things to the press to build an image, and then you saw enough disaster to know how small you were, and you had to keep that sense of smallness locked inside yourself, hidden from view.”
The novel’s braided structure is masterfully done, and at times Lee seems to defy the “rules” of writing. We are told in the first two sentences that Andrew has been murdered, and there are a few details about what was reported in the newspapers. Then Lee leaves the dramatic scene to recount what Andrew had done that morning, including seemingly random details like the fact that Andrew was replying to some politicians who were complaining that “the Statue of Liberty, her complexion seasick, should be made brown as a penny again.” We learn that President Roosevelt used to answer Green’s letters more promptly, and that Green’s sense of humor is not always appreciated by others. But in these particulars, which are, after all, what life is made of, we learn something of Green.
Again and again, Lee slows down the narrative to elaborate a minor aspect of the story, such as when the preacher who is about to baptize Andrew by immersion worries that perhaps Andrew might get sick from the cold water, though he doesn’t know of anyone he has killed in this way. Within this scene there is another diversion about the explosion of the steamship Erie, and of there being more deaths than had originally been reported, “despite people across America’s heartland saying, presumably, very regular prayers.”
Lee has an ability to tell the truths of life, even the tragic and sad, but then to soften them with humor, which does not detract from the sorrow, but somehow makes it even more poignant by the contrast. It is this aspect of Lee’s writing which will stay with me for a long time.
Even when speaking of the love that Andrew wants but never seems to quite achieve, there is this tempering by a final humorous line: “And yet it occurred to him here, briefly, pointlessly, belatedly, with the airy abstraction of a weather forecast, that all this public work might not mean as much as having a friend holding your hand as you die. Love. This was the way not to fall into forgetting. Love, and a good publicist.”
As a young man, before leaving for Trinidad, Andrew writes his will. At this point in the novel, the reader already knows that his father was often cruel, yet Andrew writes, “May God reward him for his goodness to me” Then Lee writes, “He did not include a period at the end of that final sentence. It seemed important not to add one. It was a tiny act of resistance, this seeming mistake, the way the line drifted off into space. A door left open to truth, should anyone in the future wish to walk through it.” That is what Jonathan Lee has done in The Great Mistake. He has walked through the door, looking for the truth of Andrew Haswell Green.
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Award-winning author Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women forging a different path. Her debut novel, The Lines Between Us, won an Independent Press Award and a CIBA Chaucer Award. Her next novel, The Map Colorist, comes out in September, 2023.