Writer, translator, and activist Muna Lee was born in Raymond, Mississippi, on 29 January 1895 to Mary Maud Lee and Benjamin Lee, a druggist. The family moved to Hugo, Oklahoma, in 1902. Lee was a reader from an early age, and her father’s stores provided her with a ready source of reading material. She started reading poetry and then writing while a teenager at Blue Mountain College, where her favorite teacher was David Guyton. After completing her education at the University of Mississippi in 1913, she taught school in Oklahoma and began publishing poems before she turned twenty, winning an award from Poetry magazine in 1916.
Two years later, she moved to New York to take a position as a translator for the Postal Censorship Division of the US Secret Service. She almost immediately published two of her poems, in both English and Spanish, in a new magazine, Pan-American Poetry. In 1919 Lee married Luis Muñoz Marin, a poet and the son of a Puerto Rican political leader who later became the island nation’s first democratically elected governor. The couple moved to Puerto Rico in 1920 and went on to have two children. Through the 1920s and early 1930s she published widely in New York and Chicago magazines, including H. L. Mencken’s Smart Set and Others: A Magazine of the New Verse. Most of Lee’s early poems are first-person quatrains and sonnets. Macmillan published her only book of poetry, Sea-Change, in 1923.
Lee became an expert translator and a spirited proponent of Spanish-language literature written in the Americas. In 1925 she selected and translated the poems for the first issue of Poetry to feature Latin American works, and she began to translate other works, including histories and memoirs. In addition, she worked in the publicity office of the University of Puerto Rico.
In the late 1920s and 1930s, Lee became active in the modern women’s movement, helping to found the Inter-American Commission of Women and working with the National Woman’s Party. She combined her interests in feminism and Pan-American history and culture by working on behalf of the right of Puerto Rican women to vote. At the 1928 convention of the twenty-one-nation Pan-American Union. Lee compared the situation of women to the situation of Puerto Rico: “Our position as women, amongst you free citizens of Pan America, is like the position of my Porto Rico in the community of American States. We have everything done for us and given us by sovereignty. We are treated with every consideration save the one great consideration of being regarded as responsible beings. We, like Porto Rico, are dependents. We are anomalies before the law.” Writing in the 1930s under the pen name Newton Gayle, Lee coauthored five well-received detective novels that featured dialogue in both English and Spanish.
Lee and Muñoz Marin legally separated by 1938 and divorced in 1946. Beginning in 1941 Lee worked for the US State Department in Washington, D.C., encouraging and organizing cultural exchanges with Latin American countries. She continued her work as translator and sought novel ways to connect US and Pan-American history. In 1944 the Library of Congress organized a radio series, The American Story, with Lee providing content that showed connections among the various settlements in the Americas. In 1947 Lee and a fellow State Department employee, Ruth Emily McMurry, published The Cultural Approach: Another Way in International Relations, which described cultural exchanges as part of twentieth-century diplomacy, criticized exchanges that served only as propaganda, and encouraged programs that were truthful, encouraged discussion, and “are directed by the best minds of the several countries.” Lee worked for the State Department until 1965, retiring shortly before her death from lung cancer on 3 April 1965.
Lee apparently visited Mississippi only twice after graduating from college, giving talks during the 1940s at Hinds Junior College and at Blue Mountain College, where David Guyton introduced her to the audience. In a 1940 interview in Puerto Rico she said that her writing drew on her range of experiences, beginning with the place of her birth: “Whatever poetic gift I have has also been fostered by every favoring environment: the beautiful simplicity, dignity, and pride of Mississippi; the thrilling sweep and color of the Indian Territory prairie; the heartening friendliness of great cities, New York, Washington, Paris, Madrid; the remoteness and completeness and intensity on this tropic island that has been a rich port to me.”
- Jonathan Cohen, Muna Lee: A Pan-American Life (2004)
- Elaine Hughes, Lives of Mississippi Authors, ed. James B. Lloyd (1981)
- Ruth Emily McMurry and Muna Lee, The Cultural Approach: Another Way in International Relations (1947)
- Southern Literary Festival Association, Four Talks on Writing, Delivered at the Southern Literary Festival (1947)