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Jonathan Lee on the Man Who Built New York City … Only to Disappear Into It


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I’m not sure we’ll ever get a consensus on what it means to be a New Yorker—ten years in a rent-controlled apartment? birth? a certain swagger down the shady side of Broadway?—but there’s something undeniable about a great New York novel, a novel that balances the vastness of its ambition with the particularity of its moments, a story that takes place on street corners and stoops and peers through the occasional open window while admitting to the eternal appeal and hopelessness of the city’s voyeurism, how other people are around us all the time, on display and unknowable.

The new novel, The Great Mistake, by Jonathan Lee, takes as its subject one of those lives, an extraordinary life by accounts, entitled to all claims against posterity but now mostly lost to history. Andrew Haswell Green was one of New York City’s great conceivers—a man responsible in large part for the establishment of Central Park, the New York Public Library, Greater New York, and dozens of other institutions that have helped imprint the city on so many imaginations. On a Friday afternoon in November, 1903, he was shot dead on his doorstep. This is Lee’s starting point, and from that mysterious crime, he moves like a ghost through the story of Green and of his city, the one he imagined and helped bring to life. The novel is a remarkable achievement, and a great New York City novel by any measure.

I was lucky enough to catch up with the author to discuss Andrew Haswell Green, the role of a novelist working through history, and the ways in which New York invites and feeds off our collective fictions.

(Jonathan Lee will be in conversation with Patricia Engel, moderated by Dwyer Murphy, in a Booksmart Tulsa x Magic City Books virtual event on Thursday, June 17 at 8pm EST. You can register here.

Dwyer Murphy: The Great Mistake is partly a meditation on the lines between private and public spheres. How small moments in a person’s life might come to fruition decades later in, say, the construction of a magnificent thing like Central Park. Or they might lead to a murder. Was there something about Andrew Haswell Green that made that interplay between the public and private spheres especially compelling?

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Jonathan Lee: I think so—Andrew’s ending was such a clash of public and private spheres: to be shot dead on Park Avenue on Friday the 13th of November, 1903, while strangers watched. He was an intensely private person who gave his life to public work, and his very public death, when I started researching it, seemed to sum up that clash in ways that had a lot of layers of bitter irony—the kind of thing that seems to appeal to me as a writer. This blood of his that spilled on Park Avenue in broad daylight on Friday the 13th was so unexpected—yet it also made sense, for a guy who’d spent the last 83 years thinking about how our most private selves are always trying to spill out of us. 

Murphy: Books, too, play a central role in Green’s story. They’re conduits for ambition, obsession, connections between people, and you’re offering up a retelling, a very personal one, of the story behind the founding of the New York Public Library. How did you come to see the importance of books in the arc of Green’s life and legacy? 

Lee: Digging through boxes of his diaries and letters in the New York Historical Society library’s archive, it was fascinating to find a reference to a dispute Andrew had with one of his sisters when he was a teenager. She had written a letter to their father saying Andrew would “never be an elegant man” on account of his “distaste for reading.” He took this accusation that he wasn’t a reader very personally. He knew what she was really saying was: he’ll always be a farm boy, never a gentleman. His eyesight was bad, but his family didn’t realize that was why reading was such a tough task for him. Within a couple years he had got hold of some spectacles, and he set out with great determination to prove his sister wrong—he read everything he could get his hands on, and books became his main means of self-improvement. They were his way of traveling. His way of learning about cities and architecture and parks. And his way of figuring out how to be an adult, really. And books were also my way of getting to know him. In his diaries, he listed what he read in a given week—“Psalm of Life”; Webster on eloquence; Pitt in reply to Walpole; Endymion; Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers. When I was writing about a particular phase of his life, I tried to get myself in his headspace by reading what he was reading (or said he was reading) at that time.  

Murphy: I’m curious about the city’s tradition of private libraries. Young Green has a very particular accounting of the libraries available to a clerk, their monthly and annual fees, benefits and drawbacks. The city was once filled with them, I take it? 

Lee: Yes—I was lucky that Andrew documented his own frustrations: first with his own lack of money, and later with the private library system generally. When he arrived in New York at the age of 15 to be an apprentice in a general store, he wanted two things: to read and to walk. But the only safe places to walk were ticketed pleasure gardens, which he couldn’t afford. And the only places to get books were bookstores, or private libraries. To be able to withdraw books from the Apprentices’ Library, you had to make an initial payment of ten dollars, which was the equivalent of ten weeks of wages for him. The Mercantile Library required one dollar up front, and then an annual tax of two dollars to be paid in quarterly installments, but that was beyond his reach too. So Andrew was forced to think, pretty early in life, about the intersection between public and private space—and later in life, he ended up helping create Central Park, The Met, and the New York Public Library. It’s interesting to think about whether these spaces and institutions would exist at all if this one 15 year old kid had showed up in the city with more money in his pocket, or a different set of obsessions. 

Murphy: In the text, you’re often turning to newspaper accounts from Green’s day, and specifically the language of the newspaper accounts seems to be important to your project. Not only what was reported, but the way in which it was reported. The way people were described. The way the city seemed to see itself. How did that become such an important element to the novel?

I hope The Great Mistake is in part a novel about how history is made—what is remembered and what is forgotten, and the beauties but also dangers of narrative. It seemed to me that one way to explore the thin line between recorded history and that which falls into forgetting—to build it into the very structure of the book—was to incorporate contemporaneous records as much as possible, especially when they contradict each other. So in the first chapter you’ll find little fragments in italics from newspaper reports about the day Green was murdered—but these various records of fact can’t even agree on what the weather was like. They are contemporaneous accounts. But their truth is still unstable. The fictionality is there from day one, in eye-witness testimony—which notoriously is the most unreliable of all evidence. So I wanted to give the reader some sense of that, and of my own path to discovery.

In later chapters, I noticed I stopped using italics when I was using fragments from newspapers. At first I was probably just trying to keep my draft moving—I didn’t want to stop and italicize the whole time. But it soon became a decision—a mistake that leads you toward intent. Because the more I thought about it, the more I wanted recorded history to get assimilated into my version of Green’s story as the book went on. I had this moment where I realized Andrew Haswell Green built New York City from a mix of what he knew, and what he could imagine. One reason this book took so many years to write was trying to find that same balance between two kinds of authorship.  

Murphy: This is a difficult book to classify, if you’re inclined to try. I’m curious: did you feel you were writing an historical novel?

I am maybe not alone in feeling that historical fiction as a form could sometimes benefit from acknowledging its own limitations and tricks—and being, maybe, a bit bolder and stranger on the page. Working with ghosts is a strange business, after all. And when I see a ghost, I don’t necessarily think, “Oh, I really want to describe their 19th century clothing in excessive detail.” I’m not applying to be a taxidermist or to join one of those societies that carry our historical reenactments with fake bayonets on Sundays. I have nothing against those things but I’m not much of a joiner. I just find it more interesting to sit outside a given genre, or between the lines, in my second-hand Subaru, reading and thinking and imagining, alone. Then I try to reflect that outsideness in what I’m writing. In the same way, I am not trying to recapture exactly how people spoke. I am more interested in what they were thinking, or what they might think they were thinking, if they were to go back to the past and haunt themselves. The day I cut all the quotation marks from this novel was a good day, for that reason. I realized I was writing a ghost story of sorts. It felt liberating to let all the language out—to let private conversations out into public space. And to let that space, hopefully, feel contemporary but also somewhat spooky, instead of a fusty minute-by-minute reenactment. 

Murphy: Were there certain locations, places that carry on from Green’s day to ours, that you went to for inspiration during the writing process? This is such a distinctly New York book. The scenes are so closely tied to certain locations in the city.

The whole book came out of a walk I took in Central Park in 2012. I came across a stone memorial bench overlooking the open greenery of Fort Fish. It was dedicated to “Andrew Haswell Green, Father of Greater New York, Creating Genius of Central Park.” I had never heard his name before that point. I got curious. I assumed others knew who he was, but after a few weeks of asking around, and finding only brief mentions of him in the big books on New York City history, I started researching him. Pretty soon I was in the New York Historical Society Library digging through boxes of his diaries and letters, noting the layers of dust on the lids. Before then, the only things I could find were mostly online articles and posts by Michael Miscione, who was the Manhattan Borough Historian for many years and has done more than anyone to keep Green’s memory alive in the public mind. I am not a historian. I am a novelist. And I sort of liked that everywhere I went during my research, I was seeing a ghost version of what Green saw—a mix of reality and imagination. The brickwork of a building like the New York Public Library doubtless looks different after a century of weather. In the park, trees have grown. Around it, so have skyscrapers. The light falls differently. Things are in shadow now that were not in shadow then. Any city is a fiction in that sense—it is always being rewritten, even as you look at it. And it doesn’t really reward your years of research—it just reminds you of all the stuff you’ll never know.

Murphy: Was there a particular aspect to Green’s personality, as you saw it, that unlocked the rest of him for you? Some revelatory feature, or something you connected to? The gap between a 19th century ‘father of New York’ and a modern-day novelist seems wide, and yet this is such an intimate novel.

I’ve lived in New York for ten years, but I still remember quite distinctly the feeling I had when I arrived here — and I think reading Green’s diaries and discovering his own feelings on arriving in New York from elsewhere was a point of connection, early on. To see that the guy who ended up creating Greater New York showed up in the city aged 15 feeling insecure and excited and restless and nervous all at the same time. He felt certain that adulthood would bring him only failure, yet he fought against that certainty, and brought a certain dry humor to his own perspective on fate—which endeared me to him, immediately. Also important was noticing how much the word “restraint” started arising in my research. He was very preoccupied with the idea that to be a gentleman, and a creator of great public works like Central Park or The Met or the NYPL, you had to keep your own longings in check and make your own private dreams secondary to public plans. I thought at times of the butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s great The Remains of The Day.

Murphy: You’ve got here a novel that revolves around a murder and the investigation into a prominent crime, and yet it’s not quite a mystery novel, is it? Although I would say you’re playing with and around certain elements of mystery. What attracted you to that part of Green’s story, and why frame it this way, starting with a murder, bringing in the police investigation, the bystander accounts, and more?

When I found that memorial bench in Central Park with Green’s name on it, I started to look into his life—but everything I found, at first, was about his death. Death came first. A major public figure gunned down outside his Park Avenue home in broad daylight on Friday the 13th of November, 1903—that is the bit that makes headline news and was all over the front page of the New York Times, “the murder of the century.” So it seemed to me to make sense to start with his death, and then try to peer behind the headlines, to the parts that history prefers not to record. 

I thought at first that the whole book might be about the murder investigation, but increasingly what interested me were the quieter moments of his life. There’s that Virginia Woolf line: “I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.” Which for a while was my novel’s epigraph, before I made the probably equally pompous decision to go with Novalis: “Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.” It’s certainly a shortcoming of history that a person who created Central Park and the New York Public Library has been forgotten. And there’s the even more appalling, deliberate mistake that is the eradication from the record of people of color like Cornelius Williams, the man who eventually shot Green. Williams has been so eradicated from the record by Posterity that there is very little you can say about him without straying into pure invention, yet I think he’s at the center of the book in some ways, the absence that is maybe more vivid than an embellished presence would be. I find myself thinking about his life even more often than Green’s. I feel I am not the right writer to do a book on Williams’ life, but I hope someone will do that one day.

Murphy: Why do you believe Green was (mostly) forgotten? You’ve thought about him as much as anybody now. Was there some part of his story or personality that destined him to be partially lost to time, and then rediscovered, so to speak, by a novelist all these years later? 

Some people after reading my novel have said they have a sense of Andrew Haswell Green as a 19th century Robert Moses. I think that’s a useful comparison in some ways—it gets at the scale of Green’s achievements in building the New York City we now know. But compared to Moses, Green had far less ego in the game. And he was less adept at self-serving hospitality and public relations—whereas Moses, as Robert Caro’s brilliant The Power Broker shows, was his own best PR machine. Green was quiet about his own role in the creation of institutions—which perhaps didn’t especially endear him to those holding history’s pen, or bring him daily to their notice. Maybe that accounts in part for why Moses is remembered while Green has been almost entirely forgotten. And getting murdered on Park Avenue was an unseemly ending, some thought. For a long time after his death, getting murdered in gruesome circumstances tarnished Andrew Haswell Green’s reputation—which seems harsh…

Murphy: Your last novel, High Dive, was a fictional account of an attack in the near past (a bombing in Brighton aimed at Margaret Thatcher) and now you’ve moved even further back in time to look at another crime. Is there something about applying the novelistic lens to these historical episodes that has you gripped? Anything you’ve learned about yourself as a novelist working with an incomplete historical record?

I really like having a framework of fact to operate within as a novelist. And by its nature, every framework has gaps. I love the gaps just as much as the facts. I love the work of carrying out informed imaginings of the moments that might have existed in those gaps. In Green’s case, there hasn’t been a major biography, nor a major monument. It’s surprising. But that was part of what was really appealing to me, as a writer of factual fictions.

In his lifetime, Green accused a lot of politicians of being “speculators”—and though he meant the word in a different context, it stuck with me. Writers are speculators. I like spending years researching a story, but sometimes the more you research, the more you accept that speculation is a key part of the art. For example, there is one moment in the book when Andrew picks up a newspaper from the ground. Several years of research didn’t tell me that he picked up that newspaper on that day in that moment. But the research did tell me he was a person who picked up litter when out walking. Who hated the way people let their newspapers fall to the ground when they had finished reading them. I knew he would want to pick it up. And that is interesting to me—because suddenly you have to make a decision over even the smallest things: Does he stoop to get it, or let it flutter by? Does it depend on who he is with in that instant? Does it depend on what he had for breakfast? Will his back ache? Will the pain be worth it? These are all questions that I am fortunate or unfortunate enough to get obsessed with as a writer. 

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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