The Anxiety of Influence, or, Indiana Jones, the Maya, and Tom Swift’s Retroscope!

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.

Figure 1.  Cover by Graham Kaye.
Figure 1. Cover by Graham Kaye.

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 ( 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.

Figure 2. Inside the Temple of Akator.
Figure 2. Inside the Temple of Akator.

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.

References Cited:

“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.

2 thoughts on “The Anxiety of Influence, or, Indiana Jones, the Maya, and Tom Swift’s Retroscope!

  1. Mark Van Stone December 30, 2014 / 6:58 AM

    Great backstory, Steve!
    I, too was enthralled and inspired by Tom Swift (Sr.) as a youngster, via the “elder” Victor Appleton’s (ca. 1930-40) titles, originally bought by my uncle. Later, encountering the TS Jr. stories, I found them a little insipid, programmed, compared to the originals. So hard to create a sequel to match the original. My own intro to Maya was, I hate to admit, via von Däniken’s “Chariots of the Gods” … Which luckily led me to the albums of Henri Stierlin, and eventually to Linda Schele. …Close call!
    Best, Mark V

  2. Norman Kwallek December 30, 2014 / 6:43 PM

    And, securely tenured, I don’t mind confessing that influence now.-And about as good of argument for tenure as I’ve come across. No academic should have to look over his/her shoulder when speaking their mind.

    My start with bagging ruins was a vacation to Yucatan in the 80s.

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