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A Sunday Morning Post about "The Saturday Evening Post"

As is my wont in a doctor's waiting room, on Friday I passed the time by flipping through magazines; I'll look at anything. What really caught my eye was a name from the distant past: "The Saturday Evening Post." Seeing that title startled me: The Saturday Evening Post still exists?

Many baby boomers may recall the Post as one of those staples of middle-class reading material. In the Wallach household in the 1960s and 1970s, we had subscriptions to the Post, Life, Look, National Geographic (I only read it for the articles), Boys' Life and Sports Illustrated, with my mother also getting Good Housekeeping and the Ladies Home Journal. With only two TV channels then serving the Rio Grande Valley of Texas (KGBT and KRGV), magazine subscriptions gave us a window into the turbulent world.

The current incarnation of the Post appears every two months, published by a nonprofit organization that also publishes children's magazines Humpty Dumpty and Jack and Jill. Its articles and advertising match what you see in AARP publications, trending toward an elderly demographic. As I waited for the nurse to call me in, I found the articles ranging from interesting to compelling, with some real food for thought: "A Second Chance for Ex-Cons" and "The New Nomads: Living Full-Time on the Road." The issue reprinted a short story from black author Zora Neale Hurston, one of the many top-level writers to contribute to the Post.

As the short story suggests, the Post can draw on an enormous library of material to fill issues, as you would expect for a magazine founded in 1821. Its time as a weekly came at the end of the 19th century:

It was published weekly under this title from 1897 until 1963, then every two weeks until 1969. From the 1920s to the 1960s, it was one of the most widely circulated and influential magazines for the American middle class, with fiction, non-fiction, cartoons and features that reached millions of homes every week. The magazine declined in readership through the 1960s, and in 1969 The Saturday Evening Post folded for two years before being revived as a quarterly publication in 1971.

The Post issue I read impressed me with the editorial content and also its adroit use of the Post's bottomless inkwell of illustrations. The Post showcased Norman Rockwell for decades, but the issue shows the talents and themes of other illustrators. One feature pulled together drawings about mothers, a time-capsule view into the interests, values and fashion styles of past generations. We're into Betty Draper territory here, where nostalgia switches over to cultural anthropology. 

The Post's deep library does get remarketed, such as a huge book of its covers. Norman Rockwell merits his own section in most (remaining) bookstores. Other books cover cars, Christmas and short stories and, showing a serious side, "Untold Stories of the Civil War." The Post hasn't gone in the direction of Life and the other Time Inc. magazines that festoon supermarket checkout lines with special issues, mostly on celebrity themes ("Elvis," "Princess Di," "The Kennedys Like You've Never Seen Them," etc.). 

The collection of motherhood illustrations is a good example of what I'd like to see more of; I could envision the Post pulling those together the way The New Yorker does collections of dog and lawyer cartoons. 

The Post already shows a sharp appreciation of its resources. The website has tabs for cover art, history, fiction and humor, each worth some clicking. Norman Rockwell rightly merits his own section. 

The fiction section is highlighting the story "Clever Women are Dangerous Too," complete with an illustration. A website blurb hyperventilates,

Summer is for steamy romance. Our new series of classic fiction from the 1940s and ’50s features sexy intrigue from the archives for all of your beach reading needs. In “Clever Women Are Dangerous Too,” Australian magazine editor Charlie looks to a young, new cover girl for love, but his longtime colleague with a sharp tongue won’t let him get away without a struggle.

Australian author Jon Cleary wrote romance and crime stories for the Post at the dawn of his prolific career as a novelist and screenwriter. Under his editor, Graham Greene, Cleary wrote fiction of all stripes, from war stories to political thrillers to his famous Scobie Malone detective series. His snappy dialogue and whip-smart prose made him a hit, selling about 8 million books in his lifetime.

Reading about the Post as it was and as it is, I thought about the point at which mild nostalgia trends into history and its meaning for current issues. Digging into the Post, I found the history resonating for me. There's the Civil War collection mentioned above, and the website now features its World War I blog, which I found riveting in showing the attitudes toward the conflict as it unfolded. A similar blog covers War War II.

Post archives director Jeff Nilsson did a great job making the archives relevant to today's issues with his online article, "When Freedom of Speech Hit an All-Time Low," about the restrictions on speech between 1917 and 1919, with a focus on socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, who was convicted and imprisoned for violating the Espionage Actthen met with President Warren Harding at the White House after his release in December 1921 after Harding granted him clemency. Nilsson looks at the social and legal issues of the Debs case, and includes a link to an October 17, 1908 profile of Debs in the magazine.

Socialism, violations of free speech, suspicion of dissenting opinionswhat could be more timely today? If journalism is the first draft of history, then curious readers can find history in the making over the past century and more at the Saturday Evening Post. I wish it continued success as it moves into its third century.


Jonathan F. said…
Interesting essay. I wonder about similar magazines, like the Saturday Review.
Van Wallach said…
The Saturday Review had a 66-year run that ended in 1986. My father got me a subscription to that. Norman Cousins was the erudite editor from 1940 to 1971, a long haul passing through multiple eras. At one time my family also got the National Observer, a weekly published by Dow Jones that I liked.

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