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Register of the Tram Combs Papers MSS 123
MSS 123  
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Biography
  • Preferred Citation
  • Acquisition Information
  • Publication Rights

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Tram Combs Papers
    Identifier/Call Number: MSS 123
    Contributing Institution: Mandeville Special Collections Library
    9500 Gilman Drive
    La Jolla, California, 92093-0175
    Language of Material: English
    Physical Description: 4.0 Linear feet (10 archives boxes)
    Date (inclusive): 1946 - 1964
    Abstract: Papers of Tram Combs, writer and bookseller. Combs lived in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1940s and was associated with many well-known writers. In 1951 he moved to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, where he owned and operated a bookstore. Combs was active in Gay literary circles and contributed to early Gay periodicals such as the Mattachine Review and One. Materials in the collection date from the late 1940s through 1964 and include correspondence, writings, and photographs.
    Creator: Combs, Tram, 1924-

    Scope and Content of Collection

    Dating from the late 1940s through 1964, the papers document the life, writings, and thought of Tram Combs. The collection includes Combs' personal revelations about his life as a writer and Gay person in the 1950s and early 60s. In addition, the papers provide unusual insights into Gay politics and literary infighting in the United States and the Virgin Islands.
    Combs himself organized his own papers quite thoroughly. He often wrote notes explaining how the papers were originally created and how and why the materials were arranged as they were. The present collection is organized in six series: 1) CORRESPONDENCE, 2) NOTEBOOKS AND WORKING SHEETS, 3) TYPESCRIPTS OF VERSE, 4) AUTHOR'S COLLECTION OF SERIALS, 5) WRITINGS OF OTHERS, and 6) PHOTOGRAPHS.
    Although it comprises a relatively small portion of the collection, the CORRESPONDENCE is fascinating in that both sides of many exchanges are present. Combs kept carbon copies of even his most mundane letters. Many of these letters are lengthy, gossipy, and full of interesting personal, political and literary trivia. Major correspondents include Auerhahn Press, D. Clark, James Boyer May, the Mattachine Society (one of the first Gay liberation organizations), Robert I. Nesmith, Alan Priest, Gerd Stern and Knute Stiles. The correspondence with Clark is particularly revealing of Combs' personal life and feelings. Combs' letters to Gonzalo Segura include Combs' opinions of the activities of the Mattachine Society. The entire CORRESPONDENCE series is organized alphabetically by correspondent.
    Although the collection contains references to Combs's extensive correspondence with William Carlos Williams, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan, Jonathan Williams and Kenneth Patchen, these letters are not included. It is likely that this correspondence was sold prior to UCSD's acquisition of the papers.
    The second series, NOTEBOOKS AND WORKING SHEETS, contains jottings and drafts of poems in manuscript. The description - Working Sheets - was used by the poet himself, who used that title for all working drafts of his verse. The materials are arranged chronologically wherever possible. Undated working papers were placed in a separate folder.
    The largest series, TYPESCRIPTS OF VERSE, is divided into three subseries: A) Published Books, B) Unpublished Books, and C) Miscellaneous Poems.
    A) Published Books consists of typescript copies and revisions (some with annotations) of four of Combs' major works. These items are organized chronologically by book title. Materials from Saints Thomas' and Francis' cities songs o' Tram and Briefs: poems are not found in this collection.
    B) The subseries Unpublished Books contains Combs' compilation of three large collections of poetry, along with lengthy Christmas cards containing verse. These works are arranged by title and date.
    C) The final subseries in TYPESCRIPTS OF VERSE is Miscellaneous Poems. This includes a notebook of some of Combs's earliest poems, collected and arranged by the poet and entitled "Combs Poems: thru 1950." Also in this subseries is an extensive collection of miscellaneous typescripts of poems dating from 1951 to 1964 and arranged chronologically. Curiously, there are fewer typescripts for the years 1955 and 1956. This may be due to the fact that Combs was busy helping to found the Virgin Islands Museum during that time.
    AUTHOR'S COLLECTION OF SERIALS is the fourth series. Included are relatively obscure periodicals which contain published versions of Combs' writing, as well as reviews of Combs' work. These items are arranged alphabetically by serial title.
    WRITINGS OF OTHERS is composed of Combs' small collection of what appears to be his friends' and students' writings. It is arranged alphabetically by author.
    The final series, PHOTOGRAPHS, consists of both prints and negatives. Most of the images are snapshots of Combs' family and friends, along with many scenes from the Virgin Islands.


    Elisha Trammel (Tram) Combs, Jr. was born 25 September 1924 in Riverview, Alabama, the son of Elisha Trammel, a cotton mill superintendent, and LaFaye Hunt Combs. Elisha Jr. was educated in Southern schools until 1936, when his family moved to San Francisco.
    As a young man, Tram was primarily interested in botany, physics, and chemistry. While serving in the U.S. Army Air Force he attended University of Washington in 1943 and 1944. He received a certificate of professional competence in meteorology from University of Chicago in 1945. Combs left the air force in 1946 after serving as a meteorologist and becoming a second lieutenant. For the next two years he attended Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (studying electronics engineering) and the University of California, where he received an A.B. in physics in 1948.
    From 1948-51 Combs worked as an oil chemist at the Tidewater-Associated Oil Company in Avon, California. Also during the late 1940's he began to write poetry under the guidance of Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Hart and Josephine Miles. Discovering his inclination towards writing and the arts, Combs abruptly changed careers in 1948, becoming the owner and manager of Island Studios, a photographic studio in the Bay Area.
    In 1951 Combs moved to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. There, using his talents as a bibliophile, linguist, and poet, he managed and owned Tram Combs Books - a bookshop specializing in the literature and history of middle and southern Americas. Combs also involved himself in community, cultural and political activities in St. Thomas. He served as a founder and trustee of the Virgin Islands Art Museum (1955-56), helped to develop a Boy Scouts of America chapter, worked on building a local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and participated in disaster relief work. He was an active member of the Gay literary community, both in the Virgin Islands and the U.S., and he regularly submitted articles and suggestions to Gay periodicals such as Mattachine Review and One.
    Combs earned the respect of noted contemporary poets such as Kenneth Rexroth and William Carlos Williams -- both of whom wrote forewords to Combs' first book. However, Combs' writing never received public acclaim or commercial success. Some critics complained of his verse's sentimental tone, overabundance of private references, and modifying clauses. Others praised his verbal compression, his unusual typography, his detailed attention to nature and fellow human beings, and his honest, intense, but quiet voice. As William Carlos Williams wrote, "It is in the construction of a verse about an island sunset, that the reader will find what is hidden for him there; not what he thinks he will find but something surprising, amazingly simple and altogether delightful."

    Preferred Citation

    Tram Combs Papers, MSS 123. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UCSD.

    Acquisition Information

    Not Available



    Publication Rights

    Publication rights are held by the creator of the collection.

    Subjects and Indexing Terms

    Auerhahn Press.
    Mattachine Society.
    American poetry--20th century
    Gay liberation movement--United States
    Photographic prints -- 20th Century.
    Virgin Islands of the United States -- Photographs