John Updike, who died today, never lived in Brooklyn Heights. Famous mainly for his novels and short stories, Updike did, however, use the Heights as the setting for a minor, somewhat infamous, work of non-fiction. Appearing in the September 24, 2001 issue of The New Yorker — the first published after the Towers went down — Mr. Updike wrote:
From the viewpoint of a tenth-floor apartment in Brooklyn Heights, where I happened to be visiting some kin, the destruction of the World Trade Center twin towers had the false intimacy of television, on a day of perfect reception. …
[W]alking around Brooklyn Heights that afternoon, as ash drifted in the air and cars were few and open-air lunches continued as usual on Montague Street, renewed the impression that, with all its failings, this is a country worth fighting for. Freedom, reflected in the street’s diversity and daily ease, felt palpable. It is mankind’s elixir, even if a few turn it to poison.
The reception to Updike’s piece — as well as the infamous Sontag work that accompanied it — was generally poor. The dour Christopher Hitchens opined that the effort was, “somewhat inert, not to say pathetic,” while Leon Wieseltier (aching to bomb the first country within reach) decided he was an “imbecile.”
No doubt history will treat Updike with greater kindness than either of these characters. In any case, it’s some comfort that such a fine novelist was in our neck of the woods, documenting for posterity a particularly awful day.