Jonathan Lee and David Goodwillie Rethink the New York Origin Story
Have you ever heard of Andrew Haswell Green, the “Father of Greater New York?” If the answer is no, you’re not alone. Nor had the British novelist Jonathan Lee, until he came across Green’s name on a defaced plaque in Central Park, and from there began a years-long odyssey to find out all he could about this mysterious shaper of the world’s greatest city. The result of his fastidious research is The Great Mistake, a beautifully rendered fictional portrait of this most complex and contradictory of men. Intensely driven, Green overcame a rural childhood steeped in near poverty to become a celebrated urban planner, responsible for the building of Central Park, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Natural History Museum, and the Bronx Zoo. He widened Broadway into a boulevard, willed Columbus Circle into existence, and was the driving force behind the 1898 consolidation of Manhattan with the outer boroughs, creating the modern metropolis. But five years later, at the height of his fame, Green was murdered on the front steps of his house, and within a decade had been all but forgotten by the citizens of the city he’d done so much to build.
As he has in previous novels—including 2016’s High Dive, a masterful retelling of the IRA’s 1984 bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton—Lee intersperses fact and fiction to masterful effect, exposing the secrets of a man as intensely private as his works were public. The Great Mistake is both a page-turning murder mystery and a taut psychological study of a genius lost to history. I sat down with Lee, who’s also a Senior Editor at Catapult Books, to discuss Green’s life and legacy, but the conversation soon turned to historical obsession, the beginnings of a story, and the future of fiction.
DAVID GOODWILLIE: I loved your last novel, High Dive, so much, and I found The Great Mistake equally as pleasurable, but in such a different way. Where on earth did the idea for it come from? I’ve lived in New York for twenty-five years, and fancy myself something of an urban historian, yet I’d never heard of Andrew Haswell Green before. It’s like you somehow found this great hole in history that the novel sets about filling in.
JONATHAN LEE: I moved to New York from London in 2012 and didn’t have a work visa. I couldn’t edit or write articles for anyone, and I also didn’t have kids then, so I spent a lot of time wandering around trying to get to know the city. One day that summer, I went for a walk in Central Park, through Glen Span Arch and along Montayne’s Rivulet, one of New York’s original streams, and came upon these shaded stone steps and a memorial bench that was dedicated to someone named Andrew Haswell Green. The inscription said: “Directing Genius of Central Park in its Formative Period, Father of Greater New York.” Several of the letters were covered in bird shit—which would come to seem apropos—but I immediately became curious. How had I not heard of the Father of Greater New York? My first instinct was that everyone in New York probably knew about him, so to reduce the amount of social shame I might feel, I took out my phone and started Googling.
GOODWILLIE: Which is what I did when I started reading your novel, too.
LEE: I’m sure. In all the time I was writing the book, I think I met only two people who knew who Green was, and both were historians. So yeah, I got curious, and went to the New York Historical Society, where the librarian helped me find boxes of his diaries and letters that no one had checked out for years. And when I read that he was basically responsible for merging the city of New York with Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island—a feat known by its detractors at the time as “The Great Mistake of 1898”—I realized I had my title.
GOODWILLIE: So you knew nothing about his murder when you first started your research?
LEE: No. And there was nothing on the park bench about it either. But when I learned he’d been killed—and in a possible case of mistaken identity—I began thinking there might be a book there somewhere. He’d been murdered on Friday the 13th, and there were all these conspiracy theories. And I thought the whole novel could be about the murder, but it didn’t turn out that way. It felt a bit like that Virginia Woolf quote: “I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.”
GOODWILLIE: Why did you decide to tell his story fictionally? What can a novel achieve that a biography can’t?
LEE: At first, I thought I might write a biography. When I was in the archives taking notes, that’s what I was intending to do. There were certain years where I could find loads of information, but other years were complete blanks, where I had almost no sense of what happened to him. And it just seemed, in the end, that that was all tied up with why he’d been forgotten, and also why a biography wouldn’t necessarily work. I was trying so hard to find the beat-by-beat events of his life, and they just weren’t out there. And when the gaps are bigger than the facts, a sort of empathetic imagining is needed.
GOODWILLIE: And as a novelist, you get to fill in those blanks however you want. But there’s still a real life story you have to adhere to some degree. It must be like writing a memoir in a way, in that the art comes as much from what you leave out as what you put in. You become the arbiter of your subject’s life, except you’re not necessarily highlighting the major moments of that life, but instead the moments that fit the story you’ve chosen to tell.
LEE: That’s right. And the choosing is really fascinating, because the absences can sometimes become more vivid than the presences. For example, I don’t have a chapter where Green is mourning the death of his father. But by having a scene where they build a sheep pen together—which I could base on anecdotes he’d written—I think the reader can imagine what his father’s death must have felt like to him regardless.
GOODWILLIE: You have a wonderful way of making small moments loom large, which seems especially poignant when telling the story of a man who shepherded into existence works of such a massive scale. Indeed, you left most of his great successes, his literal shaping of the city, out of the book, and instead chose to tell a more poignant, personal story that focuses on the parts of his life that remained unfulfilled.
LEE: I think that once I called the book The Great Mistake, and started thinking about the missed opportunities in his life—the love story with Samuel Tilden, the relationship with his parents—there’s an incredible sadness there. He really wanted to connect and he couldn’t. Instead he’s left with these lasting words from his father—that a life of restraint is the best kind of life. It seemed to me that the word “restraint” ran through everything in his story. So I started to seek out other missed opportunities and mistakes, things he would perceive as an error. It’s funny, a couple of readers have told me that by the end you get the impression that despite his grand achievements, Green was really a lonely person. I think he was alone but I’m not sure he was lonely. I think he became a person who just believed that the public work was bigger than the private self.
GOODWILLIE: He’s always searching and searching, and like so many geniuses, he can never slow down and appreciate his own achievements. Or maybe he doesn’t see them as “great.”
LEE: It’s a very American thing, and a very male thing, to be talking about greatness. Central Park was called The Great Park for a while, and the Brooklyn Bridge was the Great Bridge. Green arrived in New York in 1835, the year of the Great Fire, and Green even wonders in the book, why everyone is so keen to call things great all the time? And I guess I was feeling the same way as I was writing, because it became almost a credo to focus on the small and try and make that great. Maybe you and I have that in common, because when I was reading Kings County [Goodwillie’s novel] I felt like you have that same interest in the smaller moments. It’s like Updike wrote: “Give the mundane its beautiful due.”
GOODWILLIE: I get this question a lot: What is the definition of literature? And one of my answers would be that literature focuses on the smaller moments in life. Whereas more commercial books will always focus on the bigger ones. The louder ones. That’s where the commercial writer’s mind goes. Whereas the literary writer toils in…not the minutia, exactly, but the interior, the personal, the moments that may be just as life defining but from the outside might look small, even inconsequential. Clearly in this book you made that choice again and again, and it works wonderfully because by the end you have a picture of a man that you wouldn’t necessarily have were he sitting there receiving awards and validation.
LEE: Perhaps it’s the difference between resonance and amplification.
GOODWILLIE: That leads me to the question everyone’s probably asking you. How on earth did you research this book? The city you write about—be it 1903, or earlier—just feels so incredible vivid and alive. Everything from the smells to the sounds to the fashions. I can picture the streets and sense the evolution of New York growing northwards. Were you interested in this time period beforehand, or did it all follow from wanting to write about Green?
LEE: It came from Green, and I think at first I was almost annoyed that I was obsessed with his story. I gave myself all these headaches because there were these little pools of research from different eras of his life, and it felt at times like I was writing ten different novels. One thing that helped was to stop reading contemporary books about the 1800s, and instead spend my time in the New York Times archive reading newspapers from the various eras to discover what was being observed at the time.
GOODWILLIE: If you’re a New Yorker, you learn over the years, as if through urban osmosis, the names of the men and women who created modern New York. Olmstead, the Roeblings, Jane Jacobs, Robert Moses. There’ve been so many important books written by or about them. Why is Andrew Haswell Green mostly lost to history? Was it the time he lived in? Or his desire for privacy? How did he disappear when the rest of these people became larger than life?
LEE: I’ve asked myself that, too. I think some of the people you mentioned—particularly Robert Moses—had such huge egos. They served as their own publicists in a way, and self promotion was part of the act. He wanted to leave his mark on everything he did. Green, on the other hand, was a publicist in the old sense of the word. He put himself into public work, but rarely took credit for it. I think he didn’t want people digging around in his private life. But it’s fascinating that on the day after he died, November 14, 1903, the front page of the New York Times read, “Father of Greater New York Shot in Front of His Home, Assailant Probably Insane.” Green was 83, and so famous in his time that they were calling him the “Father of Greater New York.” So everything seemed set up for posterity to remember him.
GOODWILLIE: To say nothing of the fact that he was a murdered. What better way to go out, historically speaking?
LEE: True. But it was almost as if the murder sullied his reputation in some way. At the time, it invited all of these conspiracy theories about his visiting prostitutes, which fed an alternate theory that they were male prostitutes, because people knew that he and Samuel Tilden were intimates of some kind, which was its own kind of scandal of the time. After his death, people worried that by mentioning Green they might be saying something about themselves. Implicating themselves in the sordidness of his demise. It’s so strange how some people get stuck in their time, and others transcend it.
GOODWILLIE: As a British author did you ever wrestle with writing a novel about an American man who shaped America’s greatest city?
LEE: It was definitely something I thought about. But having been in New York for ten years, I’d started to feel more of a connection with America than Britain. I was writing about a time when America was still culturally close to Britain, and when I started researching Green’s voice, it felt quite Jamesian to me. I also think we’re going through a period in literary fiction where autobiographical novels have ruled the roost. And there’s been a general distrust of imagination. Maybe part of the appeal of writing about someone who died over 100 years ago is that I have just as much personal experience of 19th century New York as anyone else, you know?
GOODWILLIE: And you came to the novel in such a wonderfully 19th century way. The age of flaneurs, boulevardiers—observers. You took a walk and happened upon a bench. How much wonderful literature has come from a writer just paying attention?
LEE: E.B. White said there were three types of New Yorkers: the natives, the commuters, and the settlers—the ones who arrive from elsewhere. And its the settlers that give the city its passion.
GOODWILLIE: It’s the settlers that always change things, too. I write about them in book after book. I’m one myself. The New York origin story never gets old for me. What makes a young person take that first great risk and move to the city from the middle of nowhere, when their neighbor, or their sibling, or their best friend is perfectly happy staying put. Not that one choice is right, and one is wrong. But the former sure does set the stage fiction-wise. And that’s what seems to feed Andrew Haswell Green, too. That same sense of adventure and yearning for something more.
LEE: That’s what The Great Mistake is all about. And it’s exactly what we were just talking about, too. The difference between writing what you know and writing what you want to know. When I write, I need to feel some sense of discovery, so I take on projects that are going to teach me something over however many years. I need to stay excited.
GOODWILLIE: You recently published an essay in the Times about the trend of literary novelists spurning the present moment in favor of historical fiction. Obviously, it’s what you did with The Great Mistake, and it’s something I’m doing with the novel I’m writing now as well. In my case, having written three quite contemporary New York–based books, I’m just finding it increasingly difficult to write about the present. It’s just so…overwhelming. So noisy. So tech-focused. So political.
LEE: During the writing process of this novel, when I had urges to write about Trump, or work on an essay about a contemporary issue, I would find something within Green’s life that could better house those thoughts. For instance, there’s a speech by Boss Tweed toward the end of the book, which I took almost verbatim from real life, and it sounds eerily like a Make America Great Again speech.
GOODWILLIE: That’s right. With Roebling at the Brooklyn Bridge.
LEE: And this ties in with my editing job at Catapult as well. I receive so many submissions about the current state of the world—reflections on the pandemic or politics—and these stories almost never work because they fall so quickly out of date. “Timely” almost never equates to “timeless.”
GOODWILLIE: How do you see the state of literary fiction right now? Obviously, it’s opening up to more new and diverse voices than ever before, which has been too long in coming, and maybe that in itself is a trend. But in terms of style, voice, and subject matter, do you see the genre moving in any discernable direction?
LEE: Judging from the submissions that come across my desk, I think many writers are still splashing around in the wake of autofiction—emulating Rachel Cusk, Jenny Offill, Ben Lerner, Teju Cole, Sheila Heti. And I like all of those writers, but I think they have a lot to answer for, because the knockoff versions of their work are often too fragmentary and lacking in substance.
GOODWILLIE: And story.
LEE: Yes, and story. It’s almost like there’s a distrust of imagination and plot in American—and British—fiction at the moment. On the other hand, a few weeks ago I picked up the C Pam Zhang book, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, which I read soon after Inland, by Téa Obreht, and I feel like the two of them are taking some of the better qualities of autofiction and using them in new settings—like the historical western—which leaves me pretty excited about the future of literature. I’m editing a book right now called The Manning Tree Witches, which is a historical novel about the witch trials in the UK. And it’s anything but fussy. So I’m definitely interested in seeing more work like that out there. And my hope is that we’re going to move away from this feeling that we only want to read novels about stuff that really happened to the author.
GOODWILLIE: The Knausgaard effect.
GOODWILLIE: Which brings me back to The Great Mistake. As much as we’ve talked about the protagonist and the historical setting, there’s also a suspenseful murder mystery at the heart of the novel that propels the book forward. It’s exactly what we’ve been talking about, the ever-important element of suspense that so much of today’s fiction seems to be moving away from. Not that every book has to have a murder at its center, but every book needs something at its core—beyond the writing itself.
LEE: Plot is almost an accusation right now.
GOODWILLIE: Yes, and it shouldn’t be. A book is still an entertainment, and writers need to remember that. Especially as we’re trying to open fiction up, find new readers who might enjoy Literature with a capital L.
LEE: And we can still care about language and subtlety of thought. But no one has ever said to another person, even among writers, “I just finished this novel, you’ve got to read it. It’s full of great sentences.” You talk first about the story and the characters. That should be the engine of everything.
GOODWILLIE: Which isn’t to say the writing isn’t still important. I think we all have authors we’ll read no matter what they’re writing about because we love how they write. The one thing most of the writers I love have in common is that they’re not afraid to try something completely different from book to book. They’re real storytellers.
LEE: There’s a line of Zadie Smith’s that I come back to often, from her story, “The Embassy of Cambodia”: “There is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should this circle be?” And whether accidentally or not, I feel like she’s getting to the heart of not just this whole autofiction question, but also the question facing us as writers. It goes back to that bench in Central Park. Andrew Haswell Green’s story is outside my circle of experience, knowledge, and nationality, but can I relate to it enough that I can bring it within my circle?
LEE: That line came back to me when I saw those pandemic pictures of Domino Park in Williamsburg, where they’d actually drawn circles in the grass for social distancing. And how far you are from someone and how close. And I started thinking about it in connection with Green and public space, and how we’ve gone through this crazy year where we suddenly can’t take the things he built—parks, public libraries, public schools—for granted anymore. He was thinking about the physical and mental health benefits of these spaces before anyone else.
David Goodwillie’s most recent novel, Kings County, comes out in paperback July 13th.