Her Letters To Lovecraft: Ella Larson Nelson

Dear Mrs. Nelson:⁠—

I was indeed pained and shcoked to hear last July of your son’s sudden and untimely death⁠—the news coming from my friend R. H. Barlow, whom I was then visiting, and whom you had notified. Every now and then I have been on the point of dropping you a line of sympathy for what must be a devastating blow indeed.
⁠—H. P. Lovecraft to Ella Larson Nelson, 19 Sep 1935, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 221

Ella Larson was born in Sweden in 1889. According to the 1920 U.S. Census she arrived in the United States in 1908; in 1911 she married another Swedish immigrant, Elmer Nelson. In 1912 she gave birth to Robert William Nelson, the couple’s only child. Practically nothing of her life and thought have come down to us; her correspondence with Lovecraft is known from a single letter, sent to her as a condolence on her son’s death.

I had heard from Robert as late as July 3d, when he mentioned he might some time travel through the east and stop in Providence to see me. In replying I told him how glad I would be to welcome him in this ancient town—but the next I head was the sad news which Barlow transmitted to me.

I had been hearing from Robert at irregular intervals for a period which must add up to three years or more. Meanwhile I had noticed with appreciation the clever and increasingly competent verses and prose-poems which he had in media like WEIRD TALES and THE FANTASY FAN. I presume you have a file of this material. His promise in this field of literature seemed to me very consdierable; for despite the marks of youthful contraction—indefiniteness or overcolouring now and then—his work had a distinct imaginative richness and atmospheric power which was rapidly improving through criticism and self-discipline. I expected to see him develop like other youths whose careers I have watched—August W. Derleth, Donald Wandrei, Frank B. Long, etc.—who are now well-established figures in the world of weird writing. Barlow shos me the unpublished “Lost Excerpts” which you sent him, and which will sooner or later be published in some appropriate medium. These all have touches of the brilliancy and power which were becoming characterstic of their author. needless to say, you will receive copies of whatever magazine publishes them. Barlow, by the way, was prompt in informing the “fan” magazines of the unfortunate occurrence, so that at least one has printed a brief notice.
⁠—H. P. Lovecraft to Ella Larson Nelson, 19 Sep 1935, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 221-222

Robert W. Nelson graduated from St. Charles High School in June 1930; he apparently then spent a year at university studying journalism. In 1931, his first letter was published in Weird Tales; he would have four more published in WT from 1933-1935, as well as two letters to its sister magazine Oriental Stories The Magic Carpet Magazine, and in the pages of The Fantasy Fan. A keen amateur poet, Nelson also published his verse in Weird Tales and this fanzine. The “brief notice” appeared in the August 1935 issue of Fantasy Magazine.

We don’t know exactly what Nelson’s parents thought of their son’s involvement with fandom or poetry. In a letter to Emil Petaja, Lovecraft wrote “He was a neurotic, ill-adjusted type, & often had considerable friction with his parents” (LWP 451), and Nelson himself wrote:

I read your letter aloud to my parents, and, I am happy to say, it changed their attitude somewhat. However, they are still insisting that I secure immediate employment, and this I am doing my utmost to do.
—Robert Nelson to Clark Ashton Smith, 8 Mar 1934,
quoted in “Clark Ashton Smith and Robert Nelson: Master and Apprentice (Part 2)” by Marcos Legaria in Spectral Realms #10 (Winter 2019) 113

Robert Nelson reiterated the difficulties of finding employment in subsequent letters, and wrote to Smith that “Living with my parents is becoming more and more unbearable” (ibid. 116), and:

I just secured employment. But it is only temporary, and is scheduled to last until the middle part of May or the first part of June. But even so, it has changed entirely the whole aspect of my parents’ attitude towards me. ANything in which to ‘make money’ is their idea! In truth, all those who seek for riches and personal gain are, at better, both low in intellect and morals. The highest man in finance and business are the lowest in true intellect and good morals.

As I have said before, I have never understood (and admired) my parents), and likewise they have never understood (and admired) me. My parents possess that complete lack of logical and human understanding of their children, to the sense that they (the children) are their ‘own flsh and blood,’ and can, threfore, be molded into the sort of beings that they (the parents) ‘intend to have all the right to expect.’ All of which, of course, is plain unmitigated blah.
—Robert Nelson to Clark Ashton Smith, 3 Apr 1934, ibid. 117

Literary interests often run up hard against practical ones, and one can imagine a staid blue-collar immigrant couple exasperated at their only child’s unwillingness or inability to find work, Great Depression or not—and the same adult son’s exasperation with his parents who do not share his education or interests. This concern with unemployment is reflected in Robert Nelson’s obituary, which no doubt came from his parents:

Worry and discouragement played a large part in his illness, causing a nervous breakdown which ended in death. Idleness irked him and he was unable to get employment…. […] He made many attempts to secure work which probably would have given him courage to go on, but he was unable to find employment. He had several of his poems accepted but the market was overcrowded and his discouragement affected his health and brought on the breakdown from which he was not able to rally.
The St. Charles Chronicle, 25 July 1935, quoted in Sable Revery 9

Reading between the lines, one might see a bright young man with hopes of literary achievement dashed by harsh realities: it was the middle of the Great Depression, and even great poets like Clark Ashton Smith struggled to find publication in the pulp field, much less enough to maintain a livelihood. Ella Nelson no doubt saw her son’s discouragement at rejection and how his hopes were dashed at his seeming inability to launch a literary career…but there was nothing she could do about it. Robert moved out of the home for a short time in late 1934, and there was a brief reconciliation with his parents, but perhaps none of the underlying fundamental issues of unemployment and unhappiness had been resolved.

My correspondence with Robert was not of a business nature, but had more to do with points of criticism connected with weird literature. We discussed standards, methods, and individual sories and poems off and on; and I believe I once or twice offered suggestions in connexion with lines of his. I remember the pains I took to make clear the gulf between cheap magazines stories (the WEIRD TALES sort in general) and the genuine weird literature like the book of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and M. R. James. He appreciated this difference more, I think, than the average follower of the popular magazine press. In all of his letters he showed an admirable courtesy and considerateness. Himself obviously very sensitive, he went to almost elaborate lengths to avoid giving offence whenever his opinion differed from that of his correspondent. He was liked by all the persons to whom he wrote—and by the one member of the group (Charles D. Hornig, editor of WONDER STORIES and THE FANTASY FAN) who had the pleasure of meeting him in person. Hornig was particularly saddened by the news of his premature departure.
⁠—H. P. Lovecraft to Ella Larson Nelson, 19 Sep 1935, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 222

The surviving Lovecraft-Robert Nelson correspondence consists of four letters from 1934-1935; how much more there might have been is conjectural. Lovecraft wrote to Petaja: “I was not well acquainted with him, & probably never wrote him more than 4 or 5 letters in all” (LWP 451). The last letter was sent c. January 1935, so probably the fifth and final letter that Lovecraft wrote to him is non-extent. When asked to provide a tribute for The Phantagraph, Lovecraft wrote:

About Nelson—I had so little correspondence with him that I really feel inadequate as his biographer. The fact is, I scarcely know anything about him. The place to get data on his life is his home—indeed, I think his mother (Mrs. Elmer Nelson, 1030 Elm St., St. Charles, Illinois) would be glad to further information. She has been writing those whose names she has found on her son’s correspondence list. […] I’ll be glad to give Nelson a writeup if you’ll get the necessary biographical data from his mother.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald A. Wollheim, 20 Sep 1935, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 314

Lovecraft never wrote a memoir on Robert Nelson; presumably the data was not forthcoming. We can only guess what it must have been like for Ella Nelson, going through her son’s papers, sitting down to write or type out letters to people she didn’t know. She sent some of his poems to R. H. Barlow, who intended to publish them—though this project, like so many of Barlow’s, never materialized. In her son’s obituary it was noted:

Before the last shock of his illness; he confided to his mother that he wished to burn many of his poetic writings, which he did, though many of his articles are preserved. He lived among his books, owning a choice selection.
The St. Charles Chronicle, 25 July 1935, quoted in Sable Revery 9

The actual cause of death is engimatic in Lovecraft’s letters; he claimed that Robert Nelson died “after an illness of 17 days” (LRB 150), which data Ella Nelson provided to R. H. Barlow, who passed it on to Lovecraft during his visit with the Barlows in Florida in 1935.

Dear Mr. Barlow,

I am enclosing some writings of Robert Nelson’s which he enclosed in an envelope to be mailed to you on Friday July 5. On the same evening he took sick and gradually grew worse until his death on Monday July 22. Below I am writing a duplicate of the letter he addressed to you. Naturally we wish to keep the original as a keepsake of one of the last things he wrote.

Somehow he sensed his passing when the first signs of illness appeared and remarked that everything would be for the best.

P.S. We are enclosing an envelope in case it meant for these to be returned. You evidently knew the usual procedure.

Mrs. Elmer Nelson
—Ella Larson Nelson to Robert H. Barlow, 26 Jul 1935, courtesy of Marcos Legaria

Lovecraft was under the impression Robert Nelson suffered from tuberculosis (LFB 279), but the general belief is that Robert Nelson probably attempted suicide, was placed under treatment at the Elgin State hospital, and died as a result of his attempt (Sable Revery 9-10). Lovecraft’s last known letter to Robert Nelson is reminiscent of those he wrote to Helen V. Sully during her period of despondency, sympathizing with his “nervous tension” and counseling him to take things easy.

Robert W. Nelson died 22 July 1935, one day before his twenty-third birthday.

If Ella Nelson chose not to share the details of his death with strangers, it is hardly surprising.

So once more let me express my profound sympathy—at the same time emphasizing the fact that Robert did not lack for appreciation and esteem despite the tragic brevity of his life and writing career. Only the other day I had a letter from young Petaja—out in Montana—reiterating his sorrow at the loss.

With every good wish, and the hope that time and philosophy will help to lessen the acute pain which you and Mr. Nelson must now fel, I am

Yours most sincerely,

H. P. Lovecraft
⁠—H. P. Lovecraft to Ella Larson Nelson, 19 Sep 1935, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 222

Perhaps Ella Larson Nelson appreciated Lovecraft’s letter of condolence; perhaps she wrote a note back to thank him. Yet there are no further references to her in Lovecraft’s letters, so we must assume that no new correspondence resulted. It was a sad letter for Lovecraft to write, but we can only hope it eased Ella Nelson’s grief, at least a little, to know that her son was remembered.

Robert Nelson has been remembered—and so has Ella Nelson, if for no other reason than Lovecraft’s letter to her, and because she had sent out her son’s poetry to those who would preserve it for ultimate publication.

In 2012, W. H. Pugmire published the poem “In Memoriam: Robert Nelson” in tribute to him, and the same year Douglas A. Anderson finally collected Nelson’s poems, fiction, and letters (including Lovecraft’s letter to Ella Nelson) in Sable Revery: Poems, Sketches, Letters. The letters from Lovecraft and Robert Nelson’s poetry were published again in Letters to Robert Bloch and Others (2015).

Marcos Legaria published an article in three parts in the weird poerty journal Spectral Realms titled “Clark Ashton Smith and Robert Nelson: Master and Apprentice” (2018-2019), tracing their correspondence and association, and I thank him for his help with source materials for this piece.

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

One thought on “Her Letters To Lovecraft: Ella Larson Nelson

  1. This is such a sad story, with so much left unread between the lines. I hope Robert Nelson got some level of affirmation from his corespondence, and his mother some sort of comfort.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s