Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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To what extent can "Two Scavengers" by Ferlinghetti be appreciated through a marxist approach? This is my title for my a2 english literature coursework, and I'm really struggling, Any help would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

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Marxist approaches to literature usually look for one or two main topics: class and ideology. I recommend that you review marxist definitions of these two terms (see the enotes links below for detialed discussions of marxist approaches to literature). You will clearly see how they apply to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem, “Two Scavengers In A Truck, Two Beautiful People In A Mercedes.”

Social class is everywhere in the poem, and it seems to very closely follow the standard marxist understanding of the division of society into two class, those who rule and those who are ruled and thus work to serve their rulers (i.e. the proletariat). In this poem, the different jobs and work schedules are not the only indicators of differences in social class; you can also consider the vehicles and the clothing of the people in the poem. Compare the Mercedes with the garbage truck or the ruling class’s “hip three-piece linen suit” and “short skirt and colored stocking” with the proletarian “red plastic blazers.” Further comparison between the driver of the Mercedes with the younger garbage man – both have ponytails and sunglasses – complicates the idea of a strict division of social classes in the poem and may lead us to the second main topic, ideology.

In marxist approaches, ideology is often the term used to describe the immensely powerful but often invisible and unexamined operating beliefs that keeps a society (however full of inequity) functioning smoothly. The blurring of the distinctions between the two men – again, both have ponytails and sunglasses – may be understood in light of dominant ideologies of a late capitalistic, democratic society. The contrast in the poem between the specific situation in the opening lines (“At the stoplight waiting for the light / Nine A.M. downtown San Francisco”) and the far more general statements in the final stanza are what lead me in this direction. The final stanza reads:

And the very red light for an instant

Holding all four close together

As if anything at all were possible

Between them

Across that great gulf

In the high seas

Of this democracy

This final stanza begins with the specific situation, metaphorically identifies the idea of strong divisions in social class (“that great gulf”), but concludes with far more general references to “this democracy” and to the idea that, if only for a moment, it seems “As if anything at all were possible.” A marxist critic might say that the operating ideology here is the belief that people are in complete control of their own fate: e.g. the architect clearly worked hard to get where he is, and the garbage man may be completely content with own job, too. For me, of course, the poem ends on a loud, skeptical note: the important line here reads “As if anything at all were possible,” which indicates that the idea is contrary to reality (the line does not read “anything is possible”). Another possible marxist approach to the poem might focus on the sunglasses (which the critic would probably call a “commodity”). Our society is not equal, so the critic might conclude after reading this poem, but the working class is now able to purchase at least some of the commodities that obscure the class divisions.

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