Monday, April 03, 2006


Robert Merriman is a bit of a mysterious figure; I could find very little about him prior to his involvement in the Spanish Civil war on the internet. We do know that he was the son of a lumberjack, born somewhere in the western U.S. in 1908. He studied economics at University of Nevada and spent two years in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps because it paid seven and a half dollars a month. He also worked as a ranch hand, cement worker and pulp feeder to help finance his studies. After completing his studies Merriman began teaching at University of California. While in California and became active in left-wing politics, and supported the San Francisco General Strike in 1934, an action called by the longshoremen after their strike had been brutally broken by police resulting in sixty four injuries and two deaths.
In 1937 Merriman traveled to Spain with his wife Marion and joined the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. Because of his reserve training he was assigned to train other American volunteers arriving in Spain. Merriman taught the men how to fieldstrip rifles and machine-guns. He also organized a series of lectures on scouting, fortifications and signaling. On February 11th, 1937 Franco, after failing to take Madrid, ordered 40,000 troops to isolate Madrid from the rest of the Republic sending them across the Jarama River. Spanish General José Miaja ordered the Brigade into battle with Merriman in command. On the first day of Battle sixty of his men were wounded and twenty killed. On February 27th, the brigade left the trenches to attack the fascist again, losing another 113 men. Merriman was severely wounded in the shoulder. Merriman’s replacement, Oliver Law, was the first black commander of an integrated American unit in history. After recuperating Merriman fought in several more major battles and was killed in March 1938 in the Battle of Gandesa.
From his wife Marion we have this interesting account of entering Madrid and meeting Papa Hemingway;
As we drove into Madrid, the first thing we saw was the big bullring - the Moorish architecture, arch upon arch, dusky brown with beautiful coloring in the tiles, the columns. It was magnificent, I thought. Entering Madrid was like entering any big city's industrial section. We drove through a ring of factories, then into the nicer part of the city.
'Even under bombardment, Madrid is marvelous!' I said to Bob. The wide tree-lined boulevards and modern buildings had an air of dignity that even blocks of bombed-out ruins could not dispel.
But the scene changed, quickly. As we walked down a broad boulevard, we heard the crack of rifle fire. Then the tempo picked up. 'That's machine gun fire,' Bob said. The machine-guns rattled in the distance, perhaps a few blocks away, I couldn't be sure. Then we heard the boom of artillery and the reality of Madrid at war returned deeply to me. The artillery shell landed some distance away, collapsing part of a building, which fell into a rubble of dust. We dashed down the street, staying close to the buildings. The horror of war was driven home to me. I was terrified.
I was shaking badly when we entered the Hotel Florida and went directly up the stairs to Hemingway's room. Bob steadied me, then knocked on the door.
'Hello, I'm Merriman,' Bob said as Hemingway, looking intense but friendly, opened the door.
'I know,' Hemingway said. Bob introduced me, and the writer greeted me warmly.
Then Hemingway and Bob fell into conversation about the war and the broadcast they planned. They were joined by John Dos Passos, Josephine Herbst, and a scattering of American volunteers and correspondents who sipped Hemingway's scotch and compared notes and stories. I slipped into an old chair, still quite shaken by the action outside.
I studied Bob and Hemingway. They got along. Each talked for a moment, then listened to the other. How different they were, I thought, Bob at twenty-eight, Hemingway at least a good ten years older. Hemingway seemed complex. He was big and bluff and macho. He didn't appear to be a braggart but he got across the message, through an air of self-assurance, that he could handle what he took on.
Bob was taller than Hemingway by several inches. They looked at each other through the same kind of round glasses, Bob's frames of tortoise shell, Hemingway's of steel.
Hemingway was animated, gesturing as he asked questions, scratching his scalp through thick dark hair, perplexed, then scowling, then, something setting him off, laughing from deep down. He wore a sweater, buttoned high on his chest, and a dark tie, loosened at the neck.
Bob was clean shaven. Hemingway needed a shave. He didn't appear to be growing a beard, he just seemed to need a shave, the scrubble roughing his cheeks and chin. He looked like he had had a hard night. He had a knot on his forehead, probably suffered in some roustabout skirmish.
Hemingway sipped a scotch, as did Bob. Someone offered me a drink, and I thought I'd never been as happy in my life to get a drink of whiskey. Even in the relatively safe room I remained frightened. The sheer madness of the war would not leave my mind.
As Bob and Hemingway talked, the contrast between them struck me time and again. Bob was an intellectual, and he looked like one. Hemingway was an intellectual, but he looked more like an adventurer. Bob looked like an observer. Hemingway looked like a man of action.
I was fascinated by Dos Passes, whom I had always thought was a better writer than Hemingway. John DOS Passes was, without question, a seasoned writer of the prose of war. But as a man, he didn't impress me. I thought he was wishy-washy. I couldn't make out everything he was saying, but his message was clear - for whatever reasons, hewanted out of there, out of Hemingway's room, out of bomb-shaken Madrid.
I was scared too, with good reason. But somehow Dos Passes acted more than scared. I guessed it was his uncertainty, his facial expressions, his general attitude that this was a lost cause, given the superior strength of the Franco forces. Dos Passes criticized the Spanish Republic, for which Americans were fighting and dying.
Hemingway, on the other hand, let you know by his presence and through his writing exactly where he stood. Hemingway had told the world of the murder in Madrid, including the murder of children by fascist bombing. He had told about 'the noises kids make when they are hit. There is a sort of foretaste of that when the child sees the planes coming and yells "Aviacion!" Then, too, some kids are very quiet when they are hit - until you move them.'



Anonymous WhattheH said...

Darn you to heck. I've already advised you that my reading list is getting huge, yet you taunt me by adding yet another.
Marion presents an interesting dichotomy. She loved her husband and obviously believed in the cause, otherwise she would not have been there. Yet she was very frightened and wished she were elsewhere. I suspect that I'll be looking for Marion's story. Being a woman, it presents a draw, because I honestly believe that most of thes "great men" have pretty incredible partners (including same sex) enabling them to greatness. Just an opinion, but one for consideration.

5:02 PM  
Blogger KidKawartha said...

I think it's one of Durrati's best posts, possibly because I can connect with it more than some of the others. I was always the ultimate speed-reader, devouring book after book in a straight line, with few detours to the left and right or back to fill in the story. This one should be in the New Yorker or something like it.

5:20 PM  
Blogger durrati said...


Marion was the only female member of the brigade, she did not fight, but had a post. and a pen...

Kid, thanks but it was heavily cribbed.

5:42 PM  
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