- Secret Country [translation; poetry]. By Jorge Carrera Andrade. (New York: Macmillan, 1946)
- Sea-Change (New York; Macmillan, 1923)
Fiction (as Newton Gayle with co-author Maurice Guiness)
- Sinister Crag (New York: Scribner’s, 1938)
- Death in the Glass (New York: Scribner’s, 1937)
- Murder at 28:10 (New York: Scribner’s, 1936)
- Death Follows a Formula (New York: Scribner’s, 1935)
- The Sentry Box Murder (New York: Scribner’s, 1935)
- The Cultural Approach: Another Way in International Relations With Ruth Emily McMurry. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1947; Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1971)
- A History of Spain By Rafael Altamira. (New York: Scribner’s, 1949)
- American Story: Historical Broadcast Series of the NBC Inter-American University of the Air (New York: Columbia University Press, 1944)
- On Being Good Neighbors [translation]. By Mariano Picon Salas. Washington: Division of Intellectual Cooperation, Pan American Union, 1944.
- Pioneers of Puerto Rico [non fiction]. Boston: Heath, 1944.
- Art in Review: Reprints of Material Dealing with Art Exhibitions Directed by Walt Dehner and Acquisitions in the University of Puerto Rico, 1929-1938 (Río Piedras: University of Puerto Rico, 1937)
- Equal Rights Approved by American Institute of International Law (Washington: Inter-American Commission of Women, Pan American Union, 1931)
- Four Years Beneath the Crescent By Rafael de Nogales. (New York: Scribner’s, 1926)
by Robert Jackson (SHS)
Although no longer well-known, Muna Lee, born on January 29, 1895, in Raymond, Mississippi, to Benjamin Floyd Lee and Mary Maud Williams, was once a famous poet, historian, translator, activist, essayist and (as Newton Gayle) a fiction writer. Her parents, both of whom were college graduates, gave her the name Muna, which is derived from the poetic Latin word munus, meaning “gift.” She was the oldest of nine children.
Throughout her childhood Lee read poetry, drama, and many other types of literature at the encouragement of her mother, who had published some poems when she herself was younger (Cohen Online). At the age of seven, Lee and her family moved to the frontier town of Hugo, Oklahoma (“Lee”), where she developed an interest in literature, politics and as well as the local prairie flowers, an interest which would eventually play a large part in her poetry (Cohen Online).
Muna Lee returned to Mississippi to attend college at her mother’s alma mater, Blue Mountain College, a small, privately-owned liberal arts college for women. At Blue Mountain she studied under teacher and poet David Guyton (“Lee”), who encouraged her to write. . Lee soon began to bring Guyton poems that she had secretly written, which he later recalled as “amateur in type, but there were hints and flashes of genius even in those early attempts at writing.” In 1911 Lee entered the University of Oklahoma, and a year later the University of Mississippi, from which she graduated in 1913 at the age of eighteen (Hughes 291). At first she planned a career in teaching school, and after graduation from Ole Miss, she became a third grade teacher in Sulphur, Oklahoma, for fifty dollars a month. After taking some graduate classes, she accepted a better teaching position at Mission High School in Mission, Texas. Later she again returned to Oklahoma to teach literature, composition, and rhetoric in Oklahoma City.
In 1918, Muna Lee, after her school was closed in Oklahoma, moved to New York City and began working as a “confidential translator” for the U.S. Secret Service, a job for which she had qualified by teaching herself Spanish in two weeks. For the rest of the First World War, she translated and censored mail written in Spanish, Portuguese, and French and developed an interest in the new Pan-American movement, for which she would eventually become a leader (Cohen Online).
Muna Lee published her first poem “The Vigil” in the October 1915 issue of the magazine Smart Set, but not until 1916 did she start gaining recognition with the publication of an award-winning series of nine poems titled “Footnotes” in the magazine Poetry (Cohen Online). Lee always thought of herself primarily as a poet, publishing almost a hundred poems in many magazines between 1915 and the early 1930’s (Hughes 291). She was encouraged by H. L. Mencken, who, according to Jonathan Cohen, was essential to her poetic success. She sent Mencken a copy of Sea-Change, published in 1923. It was Lee’s first and only collection of her own poems and was intended as a starting point for carrying out her dream of integrating Latin American poets into mainstream American literature (Cohen Online).
In 1918, soon after starting work for the Secret Service, two of Muna Lee’s poems appeared in the Pan-American Magazine, along with their Spanish translations. The publication of these two poems caught the attention of Luis Muñoz Marín, a poet, journalist, and future governor of Puerto Rico. The two finally met in 1919 and were soon married. Soon thereafter the couple moved to Puerto Rico, where Lee had their daughter, Muna (Munita), and a short while later, their son, Luis (Luisito), who was born in New York.
Lee’s interest in Latin American literature led her to translate over twenty Spanish-speaking poets’ works into English over her lifetime (Hughes 292), beginning with three poems for Thomas Walsh’s Hispanic Anthology in 1920 (Cohen Online). During her fourteen years of living in Puerto Rico, Lee continued translating and writing poems for the popular poetry magazines of the time (Hughes 292). In 1926, Lee published the first of several translations of books originally written in Spanish entitled Four Years Beneath the Crescent by Rafael de Nogales, which was his critically acclaimed memoirs as a Venezuelan soldier serving the Ottoman Empire during the First World War (Cohen Online).
Later works include five murder mystery novels, written between 1934 and 1938, which Lee, using the pen name Newton Gayle, co-authored with Maurice Guiness (Hughes 292). “Gayle” is a Lee family surname. The novels, featuring a British detective who solves crimes in Britain, the United States, and Puerto Rico, are notable for their bilingual dialogue (Cohen Online), and they received decent reviews.
As the University of Puerto Rico’s director of international relations, Lee also authored many public relations writings (Hughes 292). She became a prominent figure in the National Women’s Party in Puerto Rico and contributed to the granting of women’s suffrage in Puerto Rico in the 1920’s and 1930’s (Cohen Online). Lee became one of the first women to address the Pan-American Conference, which established an Inter-American Commission of Women partly as a result of Lee’s efforts (Hughes 292).
In 1941 Muna Lee left Puerto Rico with her two children for Washington D.C., where she had been offered a position as a cultural affairs specialist in the State Department. According to Cohen, her mother came to Washington from Oklahoma to live with her. During this time Lee wrote Pioneers of Puerto Rico (1944), a book which is part of the children’s book series “New World Neighbors,” which received critical acclaim. In 1946 Lee translated Secret Country, a book of poetry by Jorge Carrera Andrade, who was considered one of the most important Spanish poets of the twentieth century (Cohen Online). Also in 1946, Lee officially divorced Muñoz Marín (Hughes 292), but her marriage had been deteriorating since the 1930’s. The Cultural Approach (1947), co-authored with Ruth Emily McMurry, was the last book Lee published of her own writing. In 1949, Lee published her last translation, the 700 page book A History of Spain by Rafael Altamira (Hughes 292), which covers Spanish history from prehistoric times to the 1940’s.
Another major accomplishment of Lee’s was her role in persuading William Faulkner, the famous Mississippi writer, to go to Stockholm, Sweden, in 1949 to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Lee was also later able to persuade Faulkner to make two trips to South America to improve cultural relations. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, Lee received numerous awards for her lifetime achievements before finally retiring from the State Department in February 1965. Soon after retiring and returning to Puerto Rico, Muna Lee was diagnosed with lung cancer and died on April 3, 1965, in San Juan (“Lee”).
A Review of Pioneers of Puerto Rico
by Robert Jackson (SHS)
Pioneers of Puerto Rico by Muna Lee is a charming historical story for children. Close examination reveals the book to be one long tale tracing the fortunes and adventures of the Puertorriqueño family from the colonial days to the present. The book maintains that without the family’s contributions, the United States would not be as it is today. Bold and colorful illustrations enrich the adventures and help immerse the reader into the cleverly-written tales.
The book opens with a story about a young boy living on the recently-colonized island of Puerto Rico in the early sixteenth century. The boy, Francisco Toro, is traveling with his father from their farm to the nearby coastal town of San Germán to see Juan Ponce de Leon, the then-governor of Puerto Rico. Francisco’s father is a former Spanish conquistador who had fought under the famous explorer Juan Ponce de Leon some years earlier against the island’s now-extinguished native people. At the time of the story, Ponce de Leon is preparing an expedition to colonize Florida, which he himself had recently discovered. Francisco Toro and his father, who has grown too old for adventuring in hostile lands, are bringing Ponce de Leon some useful gifts to aid the colonization. Using his old connections with Ponce de Leon, Francisco’s father is able to obtain permission for him and his son to board the expedition’s ship to deliver the goods. Upon boarding, they find an upset Ponce de Leon who refuses to set out for Florida without a gold medallion his daughter gave him before he left home. Francisco then realizes that he must use all his cunning and bravery to find the missing medallion and save the day.
The rest of the book’s stories deal with the adventures of the succeeding generations of the Toros family, each of which centers around a young boy also named Francisco. One of the Franciscos must help save an American ship from pursuing British ships during the American Revolutionary War, while another of Francisco’s actions contributes to the discovery of the infectious hookworm, contributing to the advances in the sanitation and the medical technology of the time.
Lee’s clear, simple language yields a style of story-telling that children should enjoy. Most children should be able to relate to the main characters of the story, especially those who are starting to “come-of-age,” one of the prevailing themes throughout the book. Older children and adults alike should enjoy the book for its historical content and its basic introduction to the culture of Puerto Rico. The book makes occasional use of Spanish, adding to its verisimilitude. Overall, Pioneers of Puerto Rico is a well-crafted, brief introduction to the history of Puerto Rico disguised within a warm and entertaining children’s book.
Courtesy of Jonathan Cohen (Stony Brook University)
Born in Hugo, Oklahoma, in 1909, Frances Klafter is a sister — and the sole surviving sibling — of Muna Lee. Here is her response to an early draft of the present biography, [Cohen’s] which she expressed to the author in a letter written in June 2000:
Not only was my sister Muna a very fine poet and a brilliant leader, she was a warm, generous, and loving person. She was completely devoted to her family — her original one, her own children, her parents (particularly her mother) and all of her siblings. She was particularly loving to her sister Virginia (Virginia Reppy whose husband was a law professor at New York University and later dean of a small, private law school). Her closeness to Virginia and dependence on her for companionship and personal support was extraordinary, and rather amazing considering that she was a person of much more consequence in the world than was Virginia.
Muna was also particularly devoted to my brother, Bill, for whom she had a lot of compassion because, although my father was a very lovable man, he became a man incapable of assuming his responsibility as the main family breadwinner and an unfair part of the burden fell on my brother Bill. So Muna tried to help him and even took him to Puerto Rico for one year of college [in 1928].
Furthermore, she was surprisingly devoted to my younger sister and me. At the time the family was the most economically hard-pressed and she herself was helping financially all she could, she never failed to send us beautiful presents for Christmas. Even later, when she worked at the State Department and I was a rather too prominent radical government worker, she showed affection and interest in me despite the danger to her job of associating with someone with my left-wing politics in the days of loyalty oaths and red-baiting.
- This excellent site by Jonathan Cohen includes a detailed biography of Muna Lee as well as some selected poetry and prose by Lee.
- The Mississippi Writers page for Muna Lee at the University of Mississippi web site features a short biography and a list of some of her publications.
- Muna Lee’s family tree on the Stony Brook University web site shows her ties to Mississippi.
- The Daypoems.net web site has one of Muna Lee’s poems, “Behind the House is the Millet Plot.”
- Cohen, Jonathan. “Muna Lee: A Pan-American Life.” 2004. Stony Brook University. 13 January 2004 <http://www.uhmc.sunysb.edu/surgery/muna.html>.
- Cohen, Jonathan, ed. A Pan-American Life: Selected Poetry and Prose of Muna Lee. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press. In press [fall 2004].
- Hughes, Elaine. “Lee, Muna: 1895-1965.” Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817-1967. Ed. James B. Lloyd. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1981.
- Lee, Muna. Pioneers of Puerto Rico. Boston: Heath, 1944.
- “Lee, Muna.” The Mississippi Writers Page. John B. Padgett, web design. 28 January, 2004. The University of Mississippi English Department. 3 May 2004 <http://www.olemiss.edu/mwp/dir/lee_muna/index.html>