- Historic Sites
For Whom The Bell Tolled
August 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 5
Robert Hale Merriman, on the other hand, was a winner. If Spain was the last chance for Stember, it provided the first big chance for this Californian whose dossier was probably the best recruiting propaganda the Lincoln Battalion ever had. Magnetic leader, studious intellectual, devout proletarian—it all seemed almost too good to be true, yet it was. And even Ernest Hemingway, reluctant to admit military prowess in Americans fighting in Spain, found Merriman irresistible. Hemingway changed Merriman’s name to Robert Jordan, gave him a sleeping bag, and made him the hero of his pastoral romance, For Whom the Bell Tolls .
Born in 1906 at Eureka, California, Merriman grew up in half a dozen logging towns in the redwood country. His father was a lumberjack and his mother a schoolteacher with literary aspirations. After high school he felled trees and fed pulp in a paper mill. Here he fell in with an old Irish radical, who forced him to question some of his laissez-faire assumptions. Young Merriman was intrigued by the theory that the strong ought to do something for the weak beyond exploiting them, but after he had saved enough money to matriculate at the University of Nevada as a twentythree-year-old freshman, his ambition was still to rise out of his economic class rather than to carry this class upward with him. One month after he arrived in Reno, the stock market crashed.
At the university, Merriman quickly became a key figure on campus and the beau ideal of fraternity row. Standing six feet two and weighing in at 190 pounds, he was a clean-cut, Anglo-Saxon go-getter. The Depression nipped the college careers of classmates, but not of Merriman. He picked up pin money as an end on the football team, ran the business half of the college newspaper, commanded a company of the R.O.T.C. (sevenfifty per month), and served as house manager of his fraternity, the prestigious Sigma Nu.
Yet grafted onto Merriman was a rebellious quality that made him balk at canons and taboos. His professors found him an omnivorous student; apparently the only courses he disliked were those that were required for a degree. On one occasion, when he refused to enroll in a course, the president himself intervened and demanded that he take it. After some research in Nevada statutes, Merriman found a forgotten law supporting his right to waive the requirements. (The law was subsequently changed, but Merriman had outsmarted the educational system.) Later, in an editorial, he denounced compulsory R.O.T.C. as incompatible with American democracy, much to the surprise of the military staff, who regarded him as a superior officer, and to the consternation of the president, who made a public speech about “rabble-rousers” on campus but apparently feared to use Merriman’s name. Yet on graduation day of 1932, the campus radical married Marion Stone, a sorority queen and drum majorette, and took a job in the corset department of a local department store.
In the fall, Merriman found a post as assistant instructor of economics at the University of California. He moonlighted as a body polisher at a Ford assembly plant, where he helped publish an illicit union-shop newspaper. When the plant went out on strike and the CaI football team were recruited as strikebreakers, Merriman led demonstrations demanding that they return to the gridiron where they belonged. In 1934 he won a Newton Booth Travelling Fellowship for his research project dealing with collective farming in the Soviet Union. When the Spanish War broke out, he and his wife were in Russia, where he was completing a thesis at the Moscow Institute of Economics. He said that he decided to go to Spain only after he had been reproached for the absence of Americans in the International Brigades, and that he had not heard of the existence of the Lincoln Battalion until he arrived at Valencia by Soviet freighter in mid-January.
It is not known what, if any, connection Merriman had with the Comintern. In the Soviet Union the Yezhovshchina —purges that would ultimately sweep away three quarters of the Central Committee—were getting under way, and it is likely that the Marty faction at Albacete, never entirely certain who or what stood behind Merriman, accorded him kid-glove treatment. In any event, they saw immediately that he was the ideal successor to Harris. The problem was how to remove Harris without arousing the ire of his followers and adding thereby to the divisiveness already existing in the battalion. For the moment, Merriman was installed as battalion adjutant on the basis of his “experience” in the R.O.T.C.