On Becoming Neighbors by Alexandra C. Klarén

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

On Becoming Neighbors
The Communication Ethics of Fred Rogers
by Alexandra C. Klarén
University of Pittsburgh Press, 344 pp., hardcover $35

Fred Rogers is one of western Pennsylvania’s most beloved national figures. Born in Latrobe in 1928, he spent most of his professional life at WQED in Pittsburgh producing the children’s TV series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968–2001) for PBS. A number of books and programs have been released about Rogers’ life and career, most recently the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks. On Becoming Neighbors is a valuable addition to these works.

Conceptually, the book engages two interwoven themes. The first involves the moral philosophy of the show, specifically the Christian ethics of care, a normative approach that stresses empathy and compassion. The second speaks to the presentational style of the program, which seeks to create in every episode a welcoming and supportive space where sometimes difficult childhood issues — such as parental divorce or the death of a friend — can be worked out in conversation. In the scholarly language that characterizes the writing, this is termed a dialogical approach. As the author explains, “Rogers offered viewers a space of refuge, safety, and affirmation where dialogical connection, learning, and experience could take place at the parasocial level of television.”

The opening chapters of the book describe Rogers’ vision for the program, and the well-planned integration of moral theory, grounded in Rogers’ background at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, along with theories of child development. Subsequent chapters provide a close textual analysis of the programs themselves and an examination of audience reception, culling a previously untapped store of viewer mail. Finally, it reviews Rogers’ responses (to each letter) and the ongoing resultant refinements to the show, using Rogers’ memos and letters.

Make no mistake, the book can be demanding reading in the opening chapters, especially for the reader not well-versed in moral philosophy and contemporary cultural or rhetorical theory, although it becomes much more accessible in its analysis of the programs themselves and the viewer fan mail. But for those seeking a deeper insight into the aims and methods of Mister Rogers, this text is well worth the effort.

Patrick Parsons
Pennsylvania State University