The Great Mistake is a novel based on the life and death of Andrew Haswell Green, the “Father of Greater New York”, who was responsible for public infrastructure projects including Central Park and the New York Public Library.
The novel begins with the day of his death in 1903, shot in a case of apparent mistaken identity. It then goes back to the beginning of his life and tells his story in (mostly) chronological order, in a wry, understated voice.
There’s another strand of the story which follows the aftermath of the murder, in particular the detective charged with investigating the case, and the woman who the murderer cites as the reason for his crime.
In this telling, Green grows up in poverty on a farm in Massachusetts under a stern and unloving father, a man who takes his own disappointments out on his son. The suggestion is that it is Green’s sexuality which underlies his cruelty. Even at a young age, despite his strength and dexterity, his father senses that he is not a man in the sense he would want him to be.
Green goes to New York to work as an apprentice in the mercantile trade, continuing an impoverished existence. There he meets Samuel Tilden, the wealthy lawyer who will go on to be his patron and will run unsuccessfully for the presidency. There is an immediate attraction between them but Tilden vacillates between affection and the desire to conform to social expectations. Eventually, Green leaves to work on a plantation in Trinidad where he earns enough money to return to New York and take his place in society.
This more equal status leads Tilden to renew his interest and recruit him to his law firm. Throughout their life together, they take on a number of public projects. After Tilden’s death, Green continues his work developing the city, living a reclusive life with his housekeeper.
The key theme of The Great Mistake is the division between private and public life, the roles that Green feels he has to play, the secrets he must keep. His shame comes from society but also the early, formative experiences of his childhood. This theme also plays out in the story of the detective and his investigation, which takes him into the underbelly of the city. More pertinently, it plays into the story of the city itself. Even Central Park, which appears to represent untamed nature in the heart of the city, is an artificial creation, carefully crafted to mimic wilderness.
I did feel the story lost focus a bit towards the end (ironically, the years of Green’s fame are the least interesting part of the story) and the story of the detective was less interesting than the rest. His justification for pursuing the motive of the murder is that juries don’t like to convict without one, but given that the murderer was apprehended at the scene this seems a stretch.
The Great Mistake is beautifully written, portraying Green’s struggles and unique perspectives with great sensitivity. It sheds light on the mystery of cities, how they are shaped both by random interactions and decisions, large and small, by individuals, sometimes acting together, sometimes going against the consensus. The portrayal of Green as powerful and driven, but also lonely and socially anxious, is a moving one that will stay with me.
I received a copy of The Great Mistake from the publisher via Netgalley.
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