by Stephen Houston, Brown University
Most Mayanists credit their interest in the civilization to a gripping lecture, the National Geographic magazine, perhaps a TV special or accessible book. Mine comes from an almost embarrassing source: Tom Swift and His Electronic Retroscope, a small volume published in 1959 by “Victor Appleton II” and later re-issued as Tom Swift in the Jungle of the Mayas (Figure 1). The author was likely James Duncan Lawrence, a writer and sometime school teacher under contract to the Stratemeyer Literary Syndicate (Serafin and Bendixen 2003:8). J. Graham Kaye, a real person, did the illustrations when not churning out figures for the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines.
The Stratemeyer Syndicate was better known for the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries—and for chapters that always ended in an exclamation point! But in Tom Swift, Jr., they found a true hero for every nerd. Ray Kurzweil, Isaac Asimov, and Steve Wozniak were admitted fans (http://mg.co.za/article/2009-05-02-the-future-is-going-to-be-very-exciting). From Tom, Jr., too, came Jonny Quest and the indispensable Venture Bros., along with a neat equation: Tom Swift the elder (Tom, Jr,’s father, hero of an earlier series that featured Motor Cycles, Submarine Boats, and Giant Cannons) = Dr. Benton Quest = Dr. Jonas Venture. Awesomely rich, each dad headed his own scientific oligarchy. The Electronic Retroscope offered more. It had Maya temples, a giant, jungles, pyramids, carvings, inscriptions, and the device itself. The retroscope could read and restore ancient texts and pictures of the Maya! It revealed designs and mathematical formulae, alien ones! At 8 ya, I was sold on the Maya and their glyphs. And, securely tenured, I don’t mind confessing that influence now.
Some years ago, with more elevated material, the literary critic Harold Bloom wrote The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973). A treatise about the limits of creativity, it proposed a state of “anxiety” in which younger writers (“ephebes”) sought to escape and “swerve” from their precursors. Mediocrity awaited those who could not escape or counter that “influence.” I should hope that I have escaped the influence of Tom Swift—although I crave a similar apparatus. Yet, to my knowledge, no one has noticed that a major Hollywood production, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), also concerned with aliens, hidden temples, and a hodgepodge of Pre-Columbian civilizations, lifts one of its main sets and premises from Kaye’s cover for His Electronic Retroscope. There, in the “Temple of Akator,” soon to zoom into other dimensions, sit skeletal aliens around the walls of a circular chamber (Figure 2). Bad Maya glyphs adorn their thrones. A quick glance at Kaye’s chamber underscores the limits of Hollywood’s imagination. Note the same seated skeletons in a circular “Maya” chamber. The adjoining text booms with the same claptrap about aliens.
Tom Swift, Jr., still has his readers, ready to be influenced, as in Hollywood. But they seem hardly to “swerve” into the originality of that teenage genius and his creators.
“Appleton, Victor, II.” 1959. Tom Swift and His Electronic Retroscope. Grosset and Dunlap, New York.
Bloom, Harold. 1973. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Oxford University Press, New York.
Serafin, Steven R., and Alfred Bendixen. 2003. The Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature. Continuum, New York.