Any mag that can safely get away with inserting A.D. into its year of birth would seem to be in no need of introduction. Yet Ben Franklin's SEP was not Norman Rockwell's SEP, and today's version is another periodical altogether. Publisher Joan SerVaas sums it up in her "From the Publisher" letter in the March/April issue: "The Saturday Evening Post has undergone several transformations in its long history." Indeed, the latest takes effect with this very issue, in which Joan announces the semi-retirement of Dr. Cory SerVaas, publisher emeritus (and Joan's mother).
For those who remember the days of a pluralistic culture and mass market magazines that seemed to reach just about everyone, it's probably safe to say that Life was Coke and Look was Pepsi and The Saturday Evening Post was not so much RC Cola as it was a quirky contender. An oversized mag, SEP was filled not just with in-depth reporting but fiction as well, back when unknown writers still had a decent shot at being published in a national magazine. (In fact, the list of contributors has included F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Kurt Vonnegut.) And of course SEP meant those great cover illustrations, especially the iconic brushstrokes of Norman Rockwell himself.
Yet in recent weeks I've spoken to no fewer than four bookstore managers, each of whom A) expressed surprise that SEP was still alive and B) filed it in a different section on the periodicals rack than their other three peers. The first part is not surprising since the publication's media kit breaks down subscription-to-newsstand sales at a ratio of 97%-to-3%. But whether it's found under General Interest or Lifestyles or Women, these days SEP is all about health.
Of course, the health magazine sector is a crowded field to say the least, so it may strike some readers as curious why such a venerable title was ever remade in this genre. But for years the SerVaas family has been devoted to health journalism and the parent company's explanation is that The Saturday Evening Post Society's goal is to be "a leading information source on health and medicine for the general lay public." A theme that is repeated in the magazine and on the Web site is that SEP "offers a truly unique perspective on life, the way it was and the way we would like it to be."
This combination of cutting-edge medicine and Early American nostalgia can make for odd mates on an editorial calendar. But when it comes to health, SEP seems determined to employ the shock-and-awe strategy of overwhelming firepower: There are more than a dozen features in this issue, along with nearly as many regular departments. The tactic seems to be successful, and while it's fair to say the content seems to skew on the older side of health issues, there's plenty of valuable advice. Collectively, these 96 pages address heart issues, diabetes, cholesterol, immunizations, and many more such topics, including a powerful first-person view of autism. Page after page of health advertisements round out the book, so someone must feel SEP is targeting a receptive audience.
Then there's the art. In recent months the cover was as likely to feature a four-color photo of Meredith Viera or "Extreme Makeover'"s Ty Pennington. But January/February trotted out a Rockwell montage and now the latest issue sports a springtime illustration by J.C. Leyendecker that evokes the magazine's past. So retro may be creeping in, since classic illustrations by Rockwell and others abound within these pages. What's strange is that many of the cartoons conjure a downright 1950s feel -- in just one issue, three focus on visits to the pearly gates.
But there are other interesting editorial nuggets as well:
Also in the current issue is a strong interview with Natalie Cole, though no doubt even she has grown weary of headlines such as "The Unforgettable Natalie Cole" and photo captions entitled "Still Unforgettable." The Q&A focuses on her hepatitis C diagnosis, which allows for some poignant responses and a helpful sidebar that illuminates aspects of the virus.
The Cole interview also points up the religious theme that runs through some SEP articles -- Christianity is often referenced, not in every piece but certainly more often than in most magazines. Faith pops up again in "The Healing Power of Energy" article, the online interview with actor Kirk Cameron, and even on the back page "Face of America" photo that prominently displays a cross. And come to think of it, just who signed off on those three pearly gates cartoons within one issue? Readers who don't share the beliefs that seem to be percolating just under these pages may or may not be disquieted by such references.
But if by chance you're simultaneously into improving your health, admiring popular artists of the Americana school, and receiving a dose of editorial spirituality along the way -- well, then, your latest issue is ready.
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