The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee: ‘The Man Who Gets Things Done’

Cover image for The Great Mistake by Joanathan LeeAs regular readers may have noticed, a New York City setting is catnip for me which made Jonathan Lee’s The Great Mistake well nigh irresistible. I also have fond memories of reading his book, Joy, which featured in one of my earliest posts when I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted this blog to be. Lee’s novel is the reimagining of the life of a man largely forgotten despite being credited as ‘The Father of Greater New York’ during his lifetime: Andrew Haswell Green, murdered at the age of eighty-three on the steps of his own home.

His father looked back at him and said, with a small bitter smile, Only a dog wants for approval, Andrew 

The seventh of eleven children, Green grew up on a Massachusetts farm, his father drowning his ineptitude and misery in drink. Aged fifteen, he was apprenticed to a New York grocer to shore up the family’s finances where he met the wealthy Samuel Tilden, beginning the most formative, if chequered, relationship of his life. A catastrophic collapse in Green’s health was followed by a year as an overseer on a Trinidadian sugar plantation from which he returned determined to make something of himself, renewing his friendship with Tilden who set him upon the path to becoming a lawyer and, later, a philanthropist determined to establish a park to restore the health of New York’s citizens and their polluted city. By the end of his long career, conducted up until the time of his murder, Green had been the driving force behind many of the city’s landmark institutions, from Central Park with its many gates named after the occupations of the city’s inhabitants, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to Brooklyn Bridge. The violent death of this quiet, self-effacing public figure at the hands of a bowler-hatted gunman leaves the detective investigating it bemused at its lack of motive until an epiphany is experienced.

She seemed to realise what he himself had only lately come to see: that one’s past was as much a work of imagination as the future

Little remains of this man so instrumental in the establishment of the city which symbolises so much to so many. No grand buildings are named after him, no foundations dedicated to his memory although there is a bench tucked away in Central Park bearing his name. Lee sets about rescuing his subject from obscurity with a touching tenderness for this man who died childless and unmarried, unable to celebrate his relationship with the love of his life as anything but friendship. Green’s story is interspersed with the investigation of his apparently motiveless killing which perplexes detectives for so long. A portrait of a lonely, frustrated man emerges, pouring his energies into the development of his city, a public figure known to very few, sometimes touchy despite his many achievements. Lee’s prose is a little too stylised for my taste but it’s laced with a pleasing, often sly wit and his story is thoroughly engrossing, replete with New York period detail and anecdote. It ends with the resolution of the murder’s puzzle, easy to find out via Wikipedia if you want, although I’d rather not reveal it. An enjoyable reconstruction of a fascinating life, it left me wondering if a twentieth-first-century public figure of such stature would sink so easily into near oblivion.

Granta Books UK: London 9781783786244 304 pages Hardback

16 thoughts on “The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee: ‘The Man Who Gets Things Done’”

    1. It’s so interesting that so little is known about Green. I found Lee’s style took a little while to become attuned to but it’s worth persevering if you have the same reaction.

  1. I remember Joy well, I really liked that book. This one sounds fascinating – so hard to imagine such an significant person in their time disappearing from the collective memory like that.

  2. How strange that in a country that latches onto any sliver of a connection to its past this man’s contributions are now largely unknown. Pity about the over stylised prose but kudos to Lee for digging out a tremendous story

  3. We share a fascination with NYC stories. Although lately I think I’ve only been coming across it in the pages of short fiction.

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