Book Review: 'The Good Neighbor - The Life and Work of Fred Rogers' by Maxwell King
March 30th, 2019
Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was a big part of my childhood growing up. The only two shows I remember watching as a child were that and Sesame Street. Thanks to somewhat strict television rules at home and limited television signals in rural areas, I didn't have a lot of TV to watch in my early childhood that wasn't provided by PBS. For that, I think I'll always be thankful.
There's been a resurgence of interest in Fred Rogers in the past few years, driving production of a documentary, a feature film, and this book. The Good Neighbor - The Life and Work of Fred Rogers re-treads some of the same areas of the documentary; as it turns out, there really aren't any skeletons in Fred Rogers' closet to reveal in a shocking biography. He was a great human being, and that was that.
There are a few differences between the documentary, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, and this book. The documentary tended to focus on his work on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and later, his frustration as he felt that his work had been all for nothing as the world became a darker and more cynical place. The Good Neighbor focuses more on Rogers' life outside of the PBS show. In fact, it feels like the book focuses more upon his formative years and then rushes through the bulk of his career later on. The book begins chronologically, but once Rogers hits his Neighborhood years, the book shifts to more of a topic-based format.
Even though I've read articles about Fred Rogers in the past and watched the documentary last year, I learned a few things about Rogers that I didn't know before.
For example, due to my current proximity to Rollins College I knew that Fred Rogers went to school there. I also knew that he lived in what is now a very expensive house near the campus. I assumed either he rented the house with a bunch of classmates or that the area wasn't as expensive and affluent as it is now. What I didn't realize was that the Rogers family was extremely wealthy. That fact seems to be brushed aside in other retellings of his life, probably because he lived so mindfully and frugally and was never ostentatious with his wealth.
However, it feels a bit disingenuous to ignore the fact that he came from a family of immense wealth, which, thankfully, this book doesn't do. He may not have lived a lavish lifestyle, but his family's wealth and connections gave him the ability to work on projects that paid very little at first, something that a person of more modest means would not have done as easily. He was also able to stick to his principles of not marketing directly to children. Someone who was struggling to put food on the table would've found it much harder to resist merchandising childrens' toys for a nice profit.
"He believed it was immoral to present ads to little children, who were not capable of distinguishing between a program and the commercial that was selling them something. Rogers did not object to marketing to adults, only to children."
I also didn't realize that Fred Rogers was a vegetarian, with the reasoning that he "couldn't eat anything that had a mother". He was even a shareholder in the magazine Vegetarian Times, and a 1983 profile can still be found at the Neighborhood Archive. He didn't preach about it, and according to the book, his own family wasn't vegetarian. He would eat a separate, vegetarian meal from his own wife and children. Honestly, it makes me that much more thankful that my husband supports my vegetarian diet at home, eating the same meat-free meals (but he'll get a non-veggie meal when we go out to a restaurant).
Finally, I knew that Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister and committed to studying religion, but I didn't realize that he studied ALL the religions.
"Rogers was a student of Catholic mysticism, Buddhism, Judaism, and other faiths, and many of his admirers came to see an almost Zen-like quality in the pace of his work and his life."
In chapter 20 there is a list of the books found on his bedside bookcase, which would be an eclectic reading list for students of religion and philosophy.
"The titles reflected his broad interest in religion and spirituality: The Book of Common Worship of the Presbyterian Church; Zen Lessons: The Art of Leadership; The Way of Chuang Tzu; Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha; The Ragamuffin Gospel; A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament; The Loving and Beloved Superego in Freud's Structural Theory; The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; Three Scientists and Their Gods."
He allowed himself to study various philosophies and add them to his own, and also used that knowledge to connect with people of diverse backgrounds.
My favorite chapter in the book might be chapter 20, titled "Fearless Authenticity".
"Fred Rogers was Mister Rogers--the identical, authentic person in every setting. And he treated everyone the same, from the president of PBS to the doorman at his apartment building in New York to the little girl who stopped him on the street to get his autograph."
This chapter contains some of the most intimate views of Rogers. He wouldn't talk badly about anyone or anything in his professional life. He also hesitated to open up and share his vulnerabilities, often turning interviews around so that he was interviewing the interviewer. This wasn't because he had something to hide; he just wanted to live his life simply without drawing undue attention to himself.
He was also a bit eccentric, as evidenced in this chapter. He famously kept his weight at 143 pounds, not only because he was overweight as a child, but because 143 stood for "I love you". His email address was email@example.com, allegedly because "zzz" meant he slept soundly at night, and "143" stood for "I love you". Also, despite his zen exterior, it seems like he suffered from impostor syndrome when it came to his work. He would write notes to himself that would reveal his inner feelings. At times, he felt that his work was all for nothing, and at other times, he struggled with debilitating creative block. As someone who feels horrible impostor syndrome at times, it made me feel a little bit better knowing that Fred Rogers felt it too.
I have two versions of The Good Neighbor, the hardcover book and the Audible version. While I loved reading the hardcover book, complete with photo inserts, the Audible version is read by LeVar Burton. It's a lot of fun to have the host of Reading Rainbow telling you stories about the life of Mister Rogers. However, if I had to recommend one, I'd say go for the printed version. Not only does it contain photographs, but it also has a handy index in the back for looking up select topics about Rogers' life and a well-sourced notes section.