So, for a couple of days there at the start of the year my plan to get back to reading more seemed to be working. But then it hit a brick wall. Not the result of any of the physiological or psychological problems of last year, but simply because I had started writing. I began, right on schedule, work on my next book, and I don’t read as much when I’m writing: the words going round and round in my head need to be my words, not someone else’s. But I’m taking a brief break from writing, largely because I’ve been suffering sciatica in my right leg, and sitting at my desk for long periods is proving uncomfortable. So, before I get on to the next chapter, I thought I owed myself a chance for my leg to rest up a bit. And therefore I’ve been reading. In particular I’ve been reading The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee, an author I’d not come across before.
The novel begins on Friday 13th November 1903, when octogenarian Andrew Haswell Green is shot and killed by a stranger in front of his Park Avenue home. The novel then moves back through his life, and forwards through the repercussions of his murder. Let me say right from the start that it is an interesting structure, very well handled, and the result is an excellent novel.
Except, at first, I didn’t believe in the character. This Andrew Green is from a poor farming family who goes on to become the guiding force behind the creation of Central Park, the person who oversaw the introduction of the New York Public Library along with the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Natural History, he was the person who oversaw the recovery of the city after the overthrow of Boss Tweed, he was behind the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, and he pushed through the uniting of the five boroughs to create Greater New York which was also known as the Great Mistake. Yeah, I thought: if you want to write about the radical transformation of New York in the latter years of the nineteenth century you’ve got all the material you could want here. But putting all of this at the feet of one man, and then having that man go on to be murdered in a bizarre shooting, is asking us to swallow a bit much, isn’t it?
So I went away and checked. Andrew Haswell Green was a real person. Andrew Haswell Green did everything on that list. Andrew Haswell Green was killed in exactly this way.
So my question is: how in all my readings on American history have I never come across this man? How has he disappeared from history? (In an oddly moving penultimate chapter, Lee steps forward to tell us that the one statue of Green was crated up and lost, the one portrait of him still hangs in City Hall but in a place where it can’t be seen by the public, a laboratory in his name at New York University was torn down. The only genuine surviving monument to the man appears to be a bench bearing his name in an obscure corner of Central Park.) And with all of that in mind, how come there aren’t dozens of other novels about him, because the man is surely a gift?
Not that I especially warmed to Andrew Green. He is an austere, pernickety, lonely man. But that is part of the point. Given how much of this novel is based on fact, I’m assuming this is too, but the main point of the novel is an unconsummated homosexual romance between Green and Samuel Tilden. (I do know about Tilden: he was the losing Democratic contender in the disputed presidential election of 1876; though I didn’t, of course, know of his connection with Green.) Tilden died a bachelor, as did Green, and they were long time friends and colleagues. There is nothing definitive to suggest that either was homosexual, though at the time discretion on such matters, particularly in the higher reaches of political and economic life, was taken to extraordinary lengths. And Lee is similarly discreet: early in the novel there’s a passage where Tilden introduces Green to an elite private library, but then severs the relationship on the advice of other members of the library. At the time, Green (and therefore the reader) takes this to be on grounds of class; looking back, there may be more to it. But then, this is a relationship which never goes beyond occasionally holding hands. Both men achieve much, but are left lonely and disappointed.
Incidentally, I don’t think that the disputed election is meant to be a reference to recent politics. Tilden’s political life is barely mentioned in the novel. But Boss Tweed, who appears only once late in the novel, appears like the spitting image of Donald Trump, and I’m sure that’s not accidental.
As for the murder: Green was killed by a poor black man who mistook him for someone else. The man had, years before, had an affair with a prostitute and was now convinced that she was being kept from him by a rich protector called Green. Except that the prostitute was now one of the richest women in New York with a string of properties across the city, and to protect her elite clientele, she referred to them by code names of her own devising, including Mr Brown, Mr Green, Mr Grey and so on. The murder is another Great Mistake. Though the chapters concerning the police detective who unravels this are perhaps the only parts of the novel played as comedy. The murderer would live out his days in an insane asylum, the detective would be killed on a new case; I assume both are real.
Green’s discreet, lonely, emotionally unfulfilled life is conveyed also in the way the novel is written. We are told constantly about the thoughts and feeling of different characters, yet we never feel that we are inside their heads. Even the description of their thoughts seems to come from outside, from a distance. And I’m sure this is intentional, because distance is referred to constantly throughout the book, and always with approbation. Of the city, we are told: “The trick to living here was to find a form of distance from the city itself.” Again: “The Battery was a spot that had perfected a quality Andrew thought of often: distance.” And when Washington Roebling is showing Green and Tilden the work on Brooklyn Bridge: “On the New York side, so small, so distant now, the first stone had not even been laid.”
This is a strange and full life, but it can only ever be known, only ever understood, from a distance.