dated June 29, 1954
MUNA Lee's name no longer rings a bell with readers of American poetry. Her once-celebrated work as a lyric poet who embraced both North and South America has been forgotten for decades, and remains ignored by scholars for reasons largely due to the fragmented humanities of today's universities. Her work as a translator and essayist in the Pan-American literary tradition, and her activism in the early decades of the Pan-American feminist movement, both figure prominently in their respective histories. Moreover, as a distinguished leader of the cause to further cultural relations between the Americas, Lee can be credited with important advances in the Pan-American movement, which embodied her lifelong vision of our achieving what she called Pan-American character, a multicultural American ethos composed of "aboriginal copper, carbon of Ethiopia, Latin dream, and stark Anglo-Saxon reality." Indeed, the lasting contributions made by Muna Lee to both American literature and society remain as impressive as this extraordinary woman was herself: a petite (5' 3"), dark-haired, dark-eyed lady from Mississippi, with striking intelligence and charm — and a graceful Southern voice which, toward the end of her life, the Library of Congress recorded for posterity in a reading of her poetry [listen].
Lee was born on January 29, 1895, in small-town Raymond, Mississippi, to Benjamin Floyd Lee, a self-taught druggist who was the son of a wealthy plantation owner, and Mary Maud (McWilliams) Lee, the daughter of a physician in nearby Blue Mountain. They named her Muna not after anyone in particular, but because they liked the uniqueness and the sound of it, and because it derived from the poetic Latin word, munus, meaning gift. The descendants of early British settlers, her parents were both college graduates, and from the start they nurtured their daughter's intellectual curiosity and, later, her idealistic spirit. Muna was the eldest of nine children (five girls and four boys), three of whom died in infancy. The family enjoyed a modest yet genteel life in the quiet town of Raymond, about which she later said, "That old dream-like memory of Raymond has always stayed with me, [and] remained a reality when so often tangible things have seemed unreal."
During the years of her early childhood, Lee showed a remarkable taste for and interest in poetry, drama, and all types of literature rarely relished by children. This passion of hers was encouraged especially by her mother, who had published poems occasionally in her own youth. Not surprisingly, from the time Muna could write, she composed verses.
In 1902, enticed by business opportunity, her father boldly moved the family to what became Hugo, Oklahoma, then part of Indian Territory (now the county seat of Choctaw County, in the southeastern corner of the state), with its vast, open expanses of land. Oklahoma was then the home of more Native Americans than any other state in the country. The state's name was derived from two Choctaw words, okla, meaning "people," and humma, meaning "red": the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole, Cherokee and Creek; Cheyenne and Arapaho; Kiowa (Apache, Comanche, Kiowa, Wichita, Waco, Tawkoni, Caddo, Kichai and Delaware); Pawnee (Pawnee, Ponca, Nez Perce, Ottawa, Confederated Peoria, Quapaw, Seneca, Eastern Shawnee and Wyandot); and Sac- and Fox-Shawnee. Living in Hugo, she would see Choctaws in town every day.
The year the Lees arrived was the year the St. Louis–San Francisco Railway built an east-west line from Hope, Arkansas, to Ardmore, Oklahoma, creating the territorial town — "a straggling town of tents" — later named Hugo (after the French novelist, whom a local surveyor's wife admired). Almost overnight with the completion of these two strategic rail lines, Conestoga wagons converged on the new territory. The town's rail depot was the center of attention with trains coming and going all day long. The Harvey House Restaurant in the depot grew in popularity. There were dance-hall girls, hustlers, and gunfighters. And the "Harvey Girls" — the women who worked as waitresses in the Harvey House — who greeted each train that arrived.
There in Hugo with its frontier atmosphere, surrounded by wilderness, Lee spent the next seven years of her life, growing into her adolescence. Coming from the circumscribed genteel Southern Raymond to Hugo's Wild West, she was immersed for the first time in a very different ethos — one in which gentility did not work; only strength and daring would make it. "In that incredibly ugly and incredibly beautiful Indian Territory," she later recalled, "murder and sudden death were of frequent occurrence — seemed in the natural order of things. The streets were unpaved and the mud [ ] a thing to be dismissed from one's mind as a grotesque exaggeration."
In contrast were the prairie flowers — great billowing masses of color and fragrance — that enchanted her (and that later would help give a distinctive character to her poetry: meadow-sweet, spiderwort, johnny-jump-up, foxglove, lavender, and columbine, among others). There was the never-ending fascination in her father's drugstore, where long rows of blue glass jars were filled with strange substances — such as "linden leaves in dried bunches with tiny flowers still clinging to the stem" — labeled in abbreviated Latin which suggested to her the world beyond the prairie. And it was there in her father's store that Lee would take fiction from the rack of books and magazines, go curl up inside an empty packing-case, and read for hours — "anything," she said, "literally thousands of books": George Eliot, Victor Hugo, Charlotte M. Braeme, G. A. Henty, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Alexandre Dumas, and numerous other popular authors.
Not only was Lee's childhood filled with literature, but with politics as well. Her father, who was an ardent Democrat and served as a member of the 1907 Oklahoma Constitutional Convention, often held political gatherings in a room above the store. Politics was a much-discussed subject in her family, and what she absorbed also contributed to the development of her intellect, preparing her for her future political life. Her experience in Oklahoma no doubt helped take her beyond the bounds of conventional Southern femininity, and opened her eyes to new possibilities of womanhood. It nurtured her independent spirit, as surely did word of the time's reawakened suffrage movement.
In 1909, at the age of fourteen, Lee returned to Mississippi for a year to attend Blue Mountain College, her mother's alma mater, a small privately-owned liberal arts college for women. Already unconventional and indifferent to schoolgirl activities, she spent much of her time with her English teacher, David Guyton, reading Browning and discussing Plato on the porch of her maternal grandfather, known as Dr. Mac Williams (who knew Faulkner's family). Guyton, himself a poet and blind as Homer, encouraged Lee to write, and soon she was bringing him large numbers of poems she had secretly written, amid her studies of English literature, Latin, French, physics, chemistry, and botany.
Guyton later recounted that "most of her college-day verses were amateur in type, but there were hints and flashes of genius even in those early attempts at writing." He also noted that "Robert Browning was her breath of life even in her early teens; she read him then with the skill and sympathetic understanding of a master."
Browning, who believed that the incarnation of divine love was necessary to guide human love, and that art was rooted in the ethical nature of human beings, gave her a model of religious and artistic convictions. He brought Christian beliefs to the test of experience, discarding orthodox dogma such as original sin, and gave her the idea that men and women cannot be judged merely by their acts, but by their quality of character fashioned in the act of living. In stressing the importance of intellect in moral affairs, he defined for her the approach to life that she would follow. Furthermore, his earliest published verse exhibited the poet's most private feelings, as her own lyrics would do as well.
In June 1910, Lee returned to Oklahoma to live at home in Hugo and then help her family move to Oklahoma City, the capital of the new "Sooner" state. Originally settled in a single day in the Great Land Run of '89, Oklahoma City had become a thriving commercial center with new oil-money flowing like adrenalin and stimulating its development. It offered her family a relatively richer life compared with their frontier life in Hugo. Just eighteen miles south of the city was the young University of Oklahoma, in Norman, where Lee enrolled in the fall of 1911.
After a full year including summer school there, during which she fell in love for the first time, she returned again to Mississippi, and entered the University of Mississippi from which she graduated with a BS in June 1913, at the age of eighteen. Little is recorded about her year at Ole Miss, where she took classes in English literature, Italian, history, mathematics, psychology, and geology. The school's yearbook has only a couple of sentences beneath her name which identify her as "fraught with learning [ ] a person with brains. We are glad that she came to us in time for Ole Miss to claim her as one of her daughters."
After her graduation, Lee returned to Oklahoma. Her career ambition at the time was to be a schoolteacher, that traditional job of educated single women. She started her first position in September 1913, teaching third grade (for $50 a month) in the public elementary school of Sulphur, Oklahoma, in the hilly south-central part of the state. For the first time she was living on her own, working with children during the day, and working with words at night to express herself in verse. She would soon start submitting her poems to a variety of literary magazines.
During the summer after that school year in Sulphur, Lee returned to the University of Oklahoma to take graduate courses in English literature and education. She had accepted a better teaching position at Mission High School in Mission, Texas — in the southern tip of Texas, a region called the Rio Grande Valley. It was a small town originally founded by the Oblate Fathers who had built a mission there in the early nineteenth century. When Lee was there, it was not much more than a railroad stop, with the recent advent of the Missouri Pacific Railroad. She taught classes in English literature and grammar, composition, and rhetoric, as well as four courses in Latin.
Although she had obtained a Texas teaching license, she moved back to Oklahoma the following year to teach high school in Lawton, in the southwestern corner of the state, by Fort Sill where Geronimo had been held prisoner just a few years before (his grave lies close to Lawton). The town itself had been founded at the turn of the century when the Kiowa-Comanche reservation was opened for white settlement, and it was growing rapidly with the influx of settlers. Lee's new teaching job not only gave her a better salary ($85 a month, compared with $75), it enabled her to be closer to her family in Oklahoma City. At Lawton High School she taught classes in English literature and in composition and rhetoric.
While in Lawton, Lee made her first significant public appearance as a poet in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, in the January issue of 1916, with a sequence of nine poems titled "Footnotes." The opening poem, "Magdalen," establishes the tone of the sequence:
The poems focus on her personal experience with love lost. Composed in the aftermath of her first great love involving a young poet named John ("Jack") McClure, whom she had met at the University of Oklahoma, they express her pain and sorrow, anger and regret. Like most of her poetry, they are short subjective poems in the lyric tradition — poems with a song-like outburst of her innermost thoughts and feelings:
The sequence of "Footnotes" ends on an ambivalent note of recovery, which shows the conflict of inner forces that persisted in her for years:
This initial publication of Lee's in Poetry was soon followed by others in this influential magazine from Chicago. During this period, she would spend a summer there to work in its office, and strengthen her relationship with it (subsequently, the salutation of her correspondence with Poetry's founding editor, Harriet Monroe, was "Dear Aunt Harriet," since Monroe, not a blood relative, had become her patroness and thus "poetry aunt"). The time in which Lee was starting to gain recognition for her verse happened to be a good one. Indeed, the founding of Poetry in 1912 had heralded a great revival of interest in poetry throughout America, and poets and poetry abounded everywhere.
Nineteen sixteen was Lee's debut year as a poet, for that year she entered the world of publishing with multiple publications in a variety of literary magazines. Also in January, she published in Smart Set the first of several lyrics, most written about her great love of the time, to appear in this self-proclaimed "Magazine for the Civilized Minority." It was one of her so-called love songs, "The Unforgotten":
In the February issue she published another short lyric, "Bereavement," and in the April issue she published "Arcady," which to her joy was featured on that issue's opening page:
Alluding to her early days in Oklahoma City, where she had found by the streams and in the hills outside of town a bucolic world suited to her romantic passions, she translated the classical Greek Arcadia into the landscape of the American Southwest. By using images of the nature around her, instead of importing them from abroad, she had found a way to be original with an American voice, and thus enhance the appeal of her poetry.
Published in New York, Smart Set at this time was featuring the brilliant criticism of H. L. Mencken (who in 1914 had joined George Jean Nathan as the magazine's co-editor); his bold ideas were helping to clear the way for the tremendous flowering of new writing in America, to which Lee would contribute in the decades to come. And the magazine was gathering laurels for its poetry. For the young schoolteacher, the excitement of her initial publications in Poetry and Smart Set, which both had wide circulations here and abroad, was nothing less than inspirational, and helped motivate her to keep writing verse for her new-found audience. Moreover, through her correspondence with Mencken, she had found in him a long-time mentor and stimulating force. His generous praise of what she had already produced — and what she would later call his "contagious belief" in her ability to keep producing good work — spurred her continued poetic development.
Later in the spring of 1916, Lee published a sequence of seven short lyrics in the combined May-June issue of Others: A Magazine of the New Verse from Grantwood, New Jersey, just outside New York. This new modernist magazine, launched in 1915, was edited by Alfred Kreymborg (his friend and fellow poet, William Carlos Williams, would be guest editor of the magazine's next issue, and subsequently an associate editor). Lee's verses in Others had no titles and were simply numbered. Again, they focus on her experience with love and its loss, as in epigrammatic number III:
And number VI, which presents an image of her loneliness in the separation she endured:
Others had been created, in Kreymborg's words, "to print the work of men and women who were trying themselves in the new forms." He thus welcomed Lee's experiment with free verse. She later polished four of the seven lyrics, and presented them under the title "Imprisoned."
In July 1916, she published "A Villanelle of Forgetfulness" in Contemporary Verse from Philadelphia, another new poetry magazine, which first appeared in January. With the flourish of her publications that year, which paralleled the appearance of new journals devoted to poetry, Lee was establishing her identity as a poet, while still struggling with the daily realities of her life in the Southwest.
When an even better teaching job was offered her for the next school year — to teach at a young junior college called University Preparatory School (now Northern Oklahoma College), in Tonkawa, Oklahoma, in the north-central part of the state — Lee gathered her books and moved herself once more. Another small town on the plains but not far from the capital city, Tonkawa had sprung up after the historic land run of the late nineteenth century. The school had been created by an act of the legislative assembly of the Oklahoma Territory. Again, Lee would be teaching English literature as well as composition and rhetoric, but the young men and women in her classes would be relatively more sophisticated than the children she previously had taught.
In August 1916 in Smart Set, Lee published a brief statement in prose titled "Like a Tale of Old Romance," which served as an explanatory note seemingly taken from her correspondence with the editors:
This statement in itself, along with the series of poems Lee published in Smart Set starting in 1916, perfectly reflects the magazine's editorial policy: "Our stories need not strive to point a bourgeois moral [ and] there must not necessarily be a happy ending, for the great moving stories of life often end in disaster."
Although the story of Lee's first love had ended in disaster for her, the growing success that she was enjoying as a poet became a certain salvation. In the fall of 1916, while teaching in Tonkawa, she won Poetry magazine's first Lyric Prize. The monetary prize was $100, and equalled a month's pay for her at University Prep. But more important to her than that, she now was not only a published poet, but a prize-winning poet.
The poetry that she was writing in the Southwest shows the influence of the prevailing mode of love lyrics, as well as her relationship with McClure. His manner of heartfire was much inspired by the lyric style of the Elizabethan poet, Thomas Campion, whose airs McClure always had in his pocket during the days of their romance. The verses of the two Oklahomans were often part of a dialogue between them. Her poems written then were simple lyrics done mostly in rhymed quatrains, with occasional experiments with free verse; and the point of view was decidedly feminine. Nonetheless, when she would depart from the fragile voice and the predictable sentiment — a feminist departure that would grow in force in her mature work — her poetry would demonstrate that strength and daring that life in the Southwest demanded of her.
A few years later she would revise this lyric, toughening it with a new opening (and closing) line, "I am so glad that you are dead," which she then used as the poem's new title. She also deleted the original third quatrain:
These early lines, subsequently abandoned, reveal the lingering grief that still burdened her in Oklahoma. Life was testing her, toughening her, and compelling her to draw on her inner strength.
Adding to her personal dilemma, Lee's promising teaching career was cut short when the Oklahoma governor temporarily closed down the junior college. Unable to secure another teaching job on short notice, the question of what to do next confronted her like a dust cloud. She then fell back on her family, returning to her parents' home, and she started to work in the retail cooperative grocery for farmers — the Southwestern Commercial Company — which her ever-enterprising father had organized and managed; he had been forced to abandon his pharmacy business for lack of the formal education required for a state license. This job gave Muna room and board, but no income. She took charge of the store, acting as cashier, handling correspondence, and ordering from wholesalers. After work, exhausted by the day's business, she might spend a little precious time with poetry.
The year was 1917. At twenty-two, there she was with her intellectual brilliance and literary aspirations in Oklahoma City, amid the sultry plains, working in a lonely grocery store and living at home with her parents and young siblings. All the while, as always, she was devouring literature, including the work of contemporary poets. It would take her to a better place. Reading the monthly issues of Poetry, Smart Set, and Others to which she subscribed, she heard the worldly voices of Modernism calling to her.
Isolated and stifled, Lee needed to change her life. She wanted so much more for herself — for her intellect and her ambitions. When the opportunity to work with her linguistic skills presented itself to her in the spring of 1918, she pursued it with all her vigor. She applied for a federal job to serve as a translator, and she landed a position as "confidential translator" for the U.S. Secret Service, specifically, the Postal Censorship Division. With Germany's aggressive use of espionage during the First World War that now was in its fourth bloody year, the U.S. government felt compelled to impose itself on the free flow of international mail.
Lee's work would involve translating and censoring mail written in Spanish, Portuguese and French. She had qualified for this civil-service job, she said, by teaching herself Spanish in two weeks. Her solid foundation in the Romance languages, together with her burning desire to improve her situation, made this possible.
Lee had originally expected an assignment in border service. To her surprise, though, she was assigned to work in New York City, where a new life awaited her. The prospect of living in New York appealed to her very much. She was drawn from the plains and isolation of Oklahoma to New York's cosmopolitan and intellectual excitement, like a hungry flower to the sun. It was there that she would soon find the community she needed to flourish as a writer and woman of ideas.
Arriving in Grand Central Station with its bustling multitude of people and its ecstatic high ceilings, Lee was captivated by the energy of New York. She had never seen such a great metropolis. Fifth Avenue seemed like a royal carpet rolled out just for her. She boarded in the home of a woman named Gabriela Delgado, on West 72nd Street, close to Central Park. Working downtown on Washington Street, she felt at home among the Bohemian artists and writers of Greenwich Village, whom she was meeting; and, as an extension of her work with Spanish, she was developing a keen interest in the Pan-American movement, of which she was destined to become a distinguished leader.
Initiated by the United States in the late 1880s for largely commercial and political reasons, this movement aimed (in theory) at mutually beneficial cooperation, and had stimulated an interest in cultural relations between the Americas. During the First World War, when much of the business of the Pan American Union, established in Washington in 1890, was put on hold, translations of poetry — English renderings of South American voices, and Spanish of North American ones — enjoyed a certain popularity in books and magazines.
Lee had already gained a reputation as a talented new poet. Two dozen of her poems had appeared in Smart Set by the time she arrived in New York, and while there she continued to publish her "love songs" in it; in fact, during this period, she was the magazine's second-most-frequent contributor of verse, second only to John McClure. Following the Lyric Prize, her "Songs of Many Moods," a sequence of five poems, had been published in Poetry in 1917.
The debut (and only) issue of Pan American Poetry, published in February 1918, included the closing quatrain of her "Footnotes" in both English and Spanish, under the title "The Moaning of the Doves." The Spanish translation, titled "La queja de los nidos," was made by Nicaraguan poet Salomón de la Selva, editor in chief of the magazine, whom she had met through Harriet Monroe the previous fall in Chicago. (He claims in a letter to Edna St. Vincent Millay that he fell "quite desperately" in love with Lee and, in a letter to Jessie B. Rittenhouse, that they had even been engaged to be married.)
In July 1918, the month after she started her government job, two of her poems appeared in the Pan-American Magazine, along with Spanish translations of them, also by de la Selva: a love poem, "When We Shall Be Dust," and a related lyric from her "Footnotes" titled "I Who Had Sought God," which depicts her sense of being abandoned and thrust upon herself to survive, with only "the heart of the yellow flower with the scent / of citrus clinging to its pointed leaf" to turn to for comfort in her grief.
Lee's publications in these magazines
would change her life dramatically, for they brought her work to the
attention of Luis Muñoz Marín, a poet and journalist at the time (and
future governor of Puerto Rico) — the son of Luis Muñoz Rivera,
the most prominent Puerto Rican statesman of his time, a leader of the movement for political autonomy from Spain,
a journalist and poet and founder of the opposition newspaper, La democracia.
In February of the following year, the dashing young Muñoz (three years her junior) presented
himself to Lee, carrying a sheaf of her poems that he had
translated into Spanish with the hope of publishing them in his new — but short-lived —
bilingual magazine "devoted to Pan-American culture," called Revista de Indias (Indies Review).
[See "Points of Fire," a short work of fiction based on the true story of their romance.]
Two exceptionally bright and passionate intellectuals, both restless and ambitious to make their marks, they fell wildly in love with each other, almost at first sight. They would take long walks together in Central Park, talking about the rich literature of Latin America, among other things. Each step they took led swiftly to the next for them, and she started writing verses to express her new-found joy, as in "A Song of Dreams Come True":
Lee was also starting to define her literary future in terms of Pan-American translation. In a letter sent in March to the head of the New York-based Hispanic Society of America, she said: "It is my intention to devote myself to the study of Spanish-American literature, and to do what one obscure translator may toward promoting a better understanding between the Americas. So far as I can find out, the only real interpreter of the one to the other is the Hispanic Society. I am therefore writing to you, to ask if there is any capacity in which I might be of use to the Society."
After knowing each other for only a few months, Lee and Muñoz were married on July 1, 1919 (six days after her government job ended); her married name was Muna Lee de Muñoz Marín, though she would continue to publish her work under her own. Now, living together in Greenwich Village, they vigorously pursued their individual writing and publishing ventures, and soon became a well-known — "most interesting" — couple in the literary world of New York.
A luminary in this world, Sara Teasdale, the celebrated lyric poet, and a friend of Lee's, had just said to Harriet Monroe in a letter written in May: "I'm awfully glad that Muna Lee has found happiness — at least let's hope it will be happiness. She talked a lot about wanting to find 'a rock' and I told her men are never rocks. [ ] And if she has a Latin-American, heaven keep her." But, at the time, Lee had never been happier.
The newlywed poets went to Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia for a belated honeymoon; Lee's writing commitments had delayed it. Having hardly any money, they hitchhiked (and sometimes walked) from New York. In Philadelphia, when they ran out of funds, Lee called Poetry magazine which had not yet paid her for some of her work. They were stranded. Sitting in a park in the rain, they waited for the telegram with the money to come. It finally arrived after a few wet hours, and enabled them to make their way back to New York — back to reality.
Later that year, Lee and Muñoz were forced by their limited finances to move to a less costly house on Staten Island. Big changes were at hand: by the third month of their marriage, Lee was pregnant with the first of their two children. In the spring of 1920, Muñoz was pulled back to Puerto Rico, his true destiny, and brought her with him; he wanted to devote himself to bettering the lot of the island's poverty-stricken masses. She knew his Socialist attitudes quite well, and translated into English some of his political poems, such as his "Pamphlet":
Their daughter, Muna (Munita), was born in Puerto Rico in May. Now busy as a housewife and mother, Lee still pursued her professional interests, and in September she took a job at a high school in San Juan, teaching English. She also continued writing and publishing her poetry.
One poem composed during this year in Puerto Rico, titled "The Flame-Trees," depicts the "sea-change" occurring in her life that moved her beyond the haunting grief of her previous love affair, and that re-focused her passions. A recurring image in her poetry, the Caribbean flame tree — an umbrella-shaped tree — blooms in the summer months and dazzles the landscape with its flaming red blossoms:
Six months after the birth of her daughter, she was pregnant with her second child, Luis (Luisito, who was blond-haired). Muñoz moved his small but growing household, which now included his mother, back to the New York area during the summer of 1921, so that he could regroup from his frustrating year of political activity with the Socialist Party. Thanks to the money from a building his mother mortgaged in Puerto Rico, the Muñoz's were able to make a down-payment on a house in Teaneck, New Jersey, just outside New York. This would be Lee's home for the next four years. Muñoz found a job writing book reviews, and Lee likewise earned money by writing.
With the birth of their son in August, Lee's duties as mother and housewife again claimed her time. Describing her work during these years, she recounted:
Lee's experience living in Puerto Rico had opened her further to the vast cultural landscape of Latin America. She started calling Puerto Rico her "rich port" (the literal translation of the island's name), and it eventually became the place she would call home. She said she loved its "remoteness and completeness and intensity of life." It was during this period that she developed her passion for, and expertise in, contemporary Latin American poetry.
Having established herself as a gifted writer in New York and having the advantage of access to good publishers there, Lee set out to publish a book of her poetry. One of her motives, as she explained to Mencken in a letter dated January 15, 1922, was related to her new interest in promoting the poets of Latin America: "I have decided to print a book of poems if I find a publisher. My opinion as to the folly of books of poems hasn't changed, but if I'm to carry out my plan of integrating South American poets, a book of my own is advisable as a starting-point, it seems." She gathered her old and new lyrics — a total of eighty-two poems, mostly love songs — into a manuscript she called "Sea-Change." This title would unify the different emotional and geographical landscapes depicted in the work written over the past decade of her life. Her efforts to find a receptive publisher were successful, not surprisingly, since her poetry had already gained a wide audience and some critical acclaim, and in April 1923, Macmillan published her Sea-Change.
Poetry celebrated the book in a review titled "Words That Fly Singing": "We have been waiting several years for this book. Long ago we read in Poetry sensitive, sharp-outlined lyrics signed by Muna Lee, and longed to see them under covers of their own. [ ] The book is probably the better for its long delay. It opens with some lyrics so good the reader warns himself that it will be hard for the rest of the book to live up to them, then fools the reader by quite consistently maintaining a high quality and thereby winning for its writer a place among our four or five best lyricists."
Among the lyrics in Sea-Change is a sequence of twelve sonnets which, among other things, express Lee's poignant realization of the impossibility of denying love. It was a deeply personal vision that took her back in memory to the Southwest where she had first fallen in love and then endured its loss. But in a short lyric she contented herself with this:
The New York Times, however, was not as enthusiastic as Poetry. It placed her in that school of lyrists led by Teasdale, saying that she "displays finish, a captivating rhyme, and she achieves a certain poignancy. But there is nothing new; there is no unique personality developing itself here."
The criticism in the Times suggests that her poems are imitative and that is sometimes true. Unlike the popular Love Songs (Macmillan, 1917) by Teasdale, however, Lee's poetry uses imagery of the Pan-American landscape with its unique geological and botanical features, which gives her work a distinctive character. Her verse shows the quality of enlightened regional consciousness that Mencken would soon celebrate as the "Oklahoma manner" of poetry. She expands it. She draws on her knowledge and awareness of natural history to depict the different scenes in her romantic drama, and thus locates her lyrics in American nature. Lee also has a habit of seeing the less usual image or seeing it in a slightly different way, which imparts a freshness to her poems. Beyond that, her lyrics have a sophisticated music of their own and, as the Boston Evening Transcript noted, "there is always something sharply individual in her vision."
The closing poem of Sea-Change reveals her quest for continued development both as a woman and poet. Originally one of the lyrics in her "Footnotes," it is the same poem she had published in the Pan-American Magazine, under the title "I Who Had Sought God"; but with a new title, "The Seeker," which emphasizes a more mature understanding that her salvation was something not to be expected from above, but found only through her own experience and free will.
Mencken's encouragement of Lee was essential to her poetic success. Soon after the publication of Sea-Change, she sent him one of the first six copies she had received from Macmillan. With her characteristic self-deprecating humor, she signed it: "For H. L. Mencken, to whose persistent encouragement of young writers is due the publication of a great many unnecessary books; this one among them" (May 13, 1923). In her letter to him, she elaborated: "A good deal of the responsibility for the book lies at your door undeniably. You are, I think, the only person who has ever considered my verse seriously. Even those whose lives have touched mine most nearly have thought last, if at all, of my poetry. As it happens, I am absurdly responsive to appreciation — hence your responsibility. I can only add my hope that you will find it worthwhile. For though I do not think it would have changed the aspect of the world for anyone else if I had not written, I know that it would have changed it for me. And I have always felt grateful to you."
With the publication of Sea-Change and the subsequent flourish of her poetry appearing in a wide range of magazines — American Mercury (Mencken's new monthly; see "Mushroom Town"), New Yorker, Current Opinion, Saturday Review of Literature, Literary Digest, New Republic, Commonweal, and Poetry, among others — Lee would establish herself not only as an important poet on the scene of the new American writing, but as a major voice in Mississippi and Oklahoma verse. Her uncollected poems, which would also appear in various anthologies, show her greater maturity as a writer.
Sea-Change remains the only book of her own poetry that she ever published. She was content with contributing poems to the periodical literature, for it allowed her to reach a wide audience. And since the early 1920s, her poetic endeavors had begun to expand with her new commitment to serving others as a translator of Latin American poets. Nonetheless, some twenty years after the publication of Sea-Change, she would lament that the book was out of print "since it is my poetry that means most to me." Indeed, she always thought of poetry "as daily fare [ ] as being as much the daily bread as the white hyacinths of life."
The publication of her book in the spring of 1923 was a joyous occasion for Lee, but her marriage had then taken a distressing turn when Muñoz left her and their children (as well as his mother) in Teaneck, so that he could return to Puerto Rico to compile his father's unpublished works, and participate more actively in the island's politics. She chose not to follow him into an unstable life again. Her sense of responsibility as a mother of two young children kept her at home in Teaneck, and close to New York and the publishers there on which she depended for income. He lived in Puerto Rico without his family for almost two years, before returning to them after his disenchantment with the outcome of the November 1924 general elections there.
In March of that year, while visiting her family in Oklahoma City, Lee gave as a gift to an old friend a copy of her Sea-Change, in which she inscribed: "The days that make us happy / make us wise." Her life had certainly changed dramatically — for better or worse — since her Oklahoma days, and she lived in a completely different world, the one she needed in order to thrive as a writer. Now, moreover, she had embraced two causes that would become central to her career, namely, feminism and Pan-Americanism.
For Lee, these two causes were intimately connected. Her marriage brought them together. Her later choice of Puerto Rico as her home would nurture them. Throughout the twenties, by which time recent U.S. intervention in Latin America and strong nationalist movements there had lessened the attraction of Pan-Americanism, she remained true to the cause. Her Pan-Americanism, at heart, was always romantic and idealistic. Initially, it had much to do with her campaigns for women’s rights, as well as her dream of political harmony between the Americas, where Latin American critics had come to view the United States as the imperialist "Colossus of the North."
She would dedicate the rest of her life to creating various forms of inter-American cultural relations, especially literary ones ranging from poems to programs, intended to help build bridges between the different nations for mutual acquaintance, understanding, and respect — what she considered basic ingredients for a better world.
In 1925, as a translator and advocate of Latin American poetry, Lee made her first major contribution to the Pan-American literary tradition which dated back a century to the pioneering work of William Cullen Bryant, the premier translator of Latin American poetry in his day. Her achievement was an expression of everything she was and had become by 1925, the year that Poetry published a special issue in June, called its "Spanish-American Number," of which she was guest editor. This landmark publication, among the first of its kind in the history of twentieth-century literary magazines, presented poems by thirty-one contemporary authors (all but three living) whose work Lee had selected and translated into English.
Lee's earliest translations from Spanish had appeared in 1920 in Thomas Walsh's Hispanic Anthology, a collection of verse translations made by "some of the greatest poets of England and America," in which Bryant's work is amply represented (including his famous rendering of José María Heredia's "Ode to Niagara"). The anthology was published by the Hispanic Society. Walsh was a friend of hers; in fact, he was the mutual friend who the previous year had introduced Muñoz to Lee, saying that "two young bi-lingual poets" should know each other. Lee's contribution to his anthology consisted of four translations, one short lyric by the mid-nineteenth century Spanish poet, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, and three short lyrics by contemporary Latin American poets, Fabio Fiallo of the Dominican Republic, Rufino Blanco-Fombona of Venezuela, and Enrique González Martínez of Mexico. The love poems of Bécquer, Fiallo, and Blanco-Fombona are natural extensions of the love poetry she herself had been writing; for example, Blanco-Fombona's "At Parting":
Her other translations are equally poetic in their attempt to re-create the poetry of the original Spanish. The poem by Martínez, his famous poem "Tuércele el cuello al cisne" (which she renders as "Throttle the Swan"), articulates the attitude Lee shared toward European affectations among American poets.
Four years later, in May 1924, Lee published an essay in the North American Review, titled "Contemporary Spanish-American Poetry," in which she provides an overview of major trends; it was done while preparing her project for Poetry. In attempting to answer two "fascinating" questions she poses — "What of the voices that sound most clearly above the chorus? What is their method, and what its results?" — she states: "A poet may express his environment in either of opposite ways: by an interpretation of it or by a reaction against it. Certainly the best contemporary example of the former method is José Santos Chocano; of the latter, Rubén Darío." She then discusses their work, providing as examples her translations of selected poems. In addition, she addresses those poets who revolted against the "shining and honied things" produced by Darío and the followers of his Modernismo.
Lee's feminism led her to consider Latin America's women poets as well: "the mystic who prefers to be known as Gabriela Mistral," who "is more often concerned with the invisible than with the visible world," but in whom is still found "the awakened social consciousness"; "that lovely and dauntless and irresistible seventeenth-century Mexican nun, Sister Juana Inez of the Cross"; Uruguay's "most popular and very talented woman-poet, Juana de Ibarbourou"; and Alfonsina Storni of Argentina.
Comparing the poetry of last two poets, Lee says, "Alfonsina Storni's work, while sometimes carelessly finished, seems to me of firmer texture and more original quality than Juana de Ibarbourou's." More significant is Lee's comment that "both, however, show a new insight — new, at least, in the literature of their race [ethnicity] — into feminine psychology; the young Argentine speaking characteristically in 'Running Water'":
This lyric would be the opening poem in the Spanish-American anthology she produced for Poetry.
In concluding her essay, Lee acknowledges that she had "simply offered a foot-note to a richly interesting literature of which we think too seldom." She ends by saying that "this ferment of creation to the south of us, in conjunction with our own quickened interest in poetry, is perhaps helping in the achievement of the Pan-American character." This character, she adds, requires a multicultural fusion — "a vision worth pondering."
Poetry's 1925 publication of its special issue devoted to the work of Latin American poets enabled Lee not only to pursue her new passion for the literary landscape of Latin America, but also to embrace the art of translation and its poetic challenges. In "A Word from the Translator," following the presentation of the poetry, she explains:
Acknowledging the limitations of her anthology, she says that it is "a suggestive collection, a cage in which humming-birds and parroquets, flamingoes and blackbirds are represented, as well as the condor and the tropic nightingale. It does little more than suggest, faithfully and gratefully, something of what readers of the poetry of our sister republics may expect to find." Nonetheless, this modest anthology gave many readers for the first time a strong introduction to the poetic brilliance and innovation of voices little known in North America.
Lee selected work by a wide range of poets, many of whom would later establish themselves as major figures; they represented fourteen Spanish-speaking countries of South America, including the Caribbean. In most cases, she offered one poem by each author. She presented work by most of the poets she had discussed in the North American Review: Darío, Chocano, Storni, Mistral, Ibarbourou, Enríque González Martínez, Luis Palés Matos, Leopoldo Lugones, and José Asuncíon Silva.
Her translation of Silva's "Nocturne" shows how well she herself could work with free verse, re-creating his poem with its expressive cadences and haunting music. At the same time, she understood the impossibilities of translation, and elsewhere said that "it is only partially translatable — that is, so much of its beauty depends upon the intricately braided jet and silver of its cadences that a great deal is necessarily lost by translation into a less liquid tongue." But also recognizing the poetic possibilities of translation, she added that "it has strength enough, however, to remain a poem even though some of the music vanishes — a poem which, even in translation, more than any other that I know, really chills the listener, across whose consciousness seems to blow the cold wind of mortality":
Concerning Silva's voice, she was quick to perceive the inter-American connection he had with Edgar Allan Poe; her essay, "Brother of Poe," published in the July 1926 issue of Southwest Review, is one of the earliest studies on the subject of Poe's influence on Silva.
All told, Lee's brief anthology successfully offered an impressive glimpse of the robust poetic activity in Latin America, and showed that, in the words of Poetry's editor, Harriet Monroe, "the Spanish-American style in poetry is more expansive than the modern fashion among our own poets has encouraged. One finds little of that stern compression which has been our discipline during most of the present century, and a more eloquent elaboration of motives than is instinctive in the Anglo-Saxon mind or customary in English speech." (The subsequent growth of North American poetry, in the decades immediately following the Second World War, would thrive on lessons learned from the vitality of this "Spanish-American style.")
In the issue, Lee also made a historic comment, albeit short. Using the pseudonym of Pablo Matos (to vary the credits to her), she reviewed an anthology of contemporary Chilean poetry, and made what was apparently the first-ever mention in English of "Pablo Neruda, with his unequivocal pictures of youth tortured by desire." At that time Neruda was just twenty, and with his second book, Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (1923; Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair), he had already established an international reputation as a poet; indeed, the poet destined to become Latin America's pre-eminent bard of the twentieth century. (Lee later distinguished herself in the 1940s as an astute and early critic of Neruda's influential Residence on Earth poems in English translation.)
In the preparation of this transnational issue of Poetry, Lee was assisted by several Latin American poets and critics, including of course her husband. Muñoz contributed a commentary titled "A Glance at Spanish-American Poetry," appearing at the end of the issue. A brief account of major contemporary trends, his essay includes a remarkable statement about the significance of poetry written by women:
With his well-known macho disposition, Muñoz had surely had his eyes opened to this new phenomenon by his wife who, by 1925, was becoming increasingly involved with American women's struggle for equal rights in society. Lee always challenged his thinking about women and their social roles. Just as her marriage with him was also a marriage with the literature and culture of Latin America (the one that never ended), his was a marriage with the ideas of the bold "new" American woman.
The Spanish-American issue of Poetry closes with Lee's review of the first book by Mexican poet Jaime Torres Bodet, in which she points out the "graphic quality in his phrases" and provides as an example of it her translation of the following image:
Her selection of this particular image reveals more of her own concerns and temperament than the author's. It is, moreover, the final poetic image encountered in the entire issue which, as noted above, opens with her rendering of Storni's female voice. Like Storni, in whose works at the time the themes of love and feminism predominated, Lee would soon raise her powerful voice to champion women throughout the Americas, not in poetry but in the political arena.
The Bulletin of the Pan American Union — "believing that the road to that real understanding between nations which is the very essence of all Pan American ideals will be found in cultural rather than commercial or political contacts" — opened its July issue with an editorial tribute to Poetry's "Hispanic American edition," followed by a group of Lee's translations taken from it. Lee was described as "the ardent young Hispanist and poet who served as translator," and her achievement hailed as "a distinct contribution to Pan American letters and inter-American friendship."
In August 1925, Lee and Muñoz sold their house in Teaneck and moved back to New York. Together, they soon established their West Side apartment — on Riverside Drive above 100th Street — as a gathering place for literary figures, such as poets Horace Gregory, Marya Zaturensky, Sara Teasdale, William Rose Benét, W. Adolphe Roberts (whose 1949 novel about the Spanish-American War, The Single Star, would be dedicated to Lee "in token of long friendship and because she profoundly knows and loves the Caribbean scene"), and Constance Lindsay Skinner (see Jean Barman's Constance Lindsay Skinner). Indeed, their well-known Sunday night "open house" parties included these writers, among others, as well as teachers, explorers, diplomats, dilettantes, artists, revolutionaries, and mercenaries, even Spain's famous bullfighter, Juan Belmonte. Skinner, a close friend of Lee's, who then was working in New York as a literary critic for the New York Herald Tribune, was often co-hostess of these lively soirees, which had two firm rules: no invitation required, and no recitation of anyone's poetry.
"Why," a poet friend asked Lee at one of them, "do you insist so on wildflowers and rain?" She replied:
In his autobiographical work, The House on Jefferson Street, Horace Gregory recalls the Sunday night parties he attended at the home of Lee and Muñoz:
Gregory adds that on those Sunday nights, he felt part of "a more recent, more 'serious,' somehow more responsible generation than that which drifted off to Paris soon after World War I." This seriousness was an everlasting quality of Lee's character. The daily realities of her present life demanded it, with motherhood and household duties, reading and writing work, not to mention marriage. Furthermore, her politics compelled her to take life seriously and take part in society.
The period of the mid-1920s also saw Lee expand her work as a literary translator to include prose from Latin America — the translation of which was a labor of love she pursued throughout her life. In the spring of 1926, her critically-acclaimed rendering of (General) Rafael de Nogales's Four Years Beneath the Crescent was published by Scribner's. The war memoirs of a Venezuelan soldier of fortune serving with Ottoman forces in Turkey and the Near East during the First World War, the original Spanish had just been published in Spain in 1924. The author's observations of the massacres in the Near East made him distinctly persona non grata in the official quarters from whence issued the laconic order to burn — demolish — kill. Luckily he escaped assassination and, receiving honorable discharge from the army, returned to Venezuela to write these memoirs.
The publication of Lee's translation of his adventure story created a sensation among critics. Highly favorable reviews appeared everywhere. The New York Times said that "the book, delightfully and feelingly written, would be worth its weight in thrills, if every page weighed a ton, as a tale of chivalry in the age of iron." The Review of Reviews said that "one should not dismiss it as merely a narrative of a soldier of fortune. It is that and much more." The Boston Evening Transcript called it an "engrossing volume" — and at 416 pages it was a sizeable volume. Acknowledging the literary feat of Lee's translation, the New York Herald Tribune said:
Indeed, giving a strong voice to others, whether by means of translation and other forms of writing or by use of the podium, had become the focus of Lee's career.
In the summer of 1926, Lee moved back to Puerto Rico with Muñoz. He had been offered the directorship of the prominent newspaper his father had founded in San Juan, La democracia. He also wanted to "go home" in order to engage more actively in the politics of Puerto Rico, where glaring inequalities in wealth contributed to sharpened social and political tensions. He was bent on helping to bring about the economic reform needed to improve the lives of the island's forgotten working class. Such reform had become a major issue in the new climate of freedom in Puerto Rico that followed enactment of the 1917 Jones Act, which gave it a measure of political autonomy from the United States.
Signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson, the Jones Act extended U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans for the first time. It also established a locally elected senate and house of representatives, modeled after the organization of the Congress in Washington. The local political leadership continued to be obsessed with the status issue. This issue loomed large in Puerto Rico, with arguments about the ideal form of autonomy it should have, while the United States maintained that it could not give Puerto Rico statehood or independence until the island lowered its illiteracy rate. Muñoz believed that independence should always be in the program of a serious political party, and at this time, in the mid-twenties, he was an outspoken supporter of Puerto Rican independence.
Energetic as always, Lee ran their large household. The paper prospered under his directorship, and for the first time the family was financially secure. Nonetheless, in addition to her responsibilities at home and her continued literary activity, Lee started to work for the University of Puerto Rico, in January 1927, as director of its bureau of international relations. This position appealed to her interest in Pan-American cultural affairs. It gave her a position of her own in the world, as well, outside of the home. She would hold it for more than a decade; with the exception of a two-year leave of absence in the early 1930s to work for the feminist National Woman's Party (NWP) as director of national activities.
As the university's lead publicist, she prepared daily press releases in both Spanish and English; wrote a daily newspaper column on international, educational, and cultural relations, about which she would lecture widely; and acted as liaison with educational and cultural representatives in the United States, the other American republics, Spain, and England. She would also write and edit numerous special publications for the university, and find time to teach English literature there. In the years to come, she prepared and supervised radio programs, as well as inter-American literary conferences. It was a position that challenged her intellectually and creatively. It also kept her close to the literary scenes in both South and North America.
Soon after arriving in Puerto Rico in 1926, Lee became actively involved with the women's suffrage movement there, which had been gathering momentum since the turn of the century. She had long been a supporter of the suffrage movement in the United States, and the young NWP founded by Alice Paul, who spearheaded the movement's drive to victory in 1920. When Paul led pickets on the Wilson White House, and brought thousands of women from across the country to march for equality, Lee was always cheering for them; for it was her cause, too.
Having fully identified herself with the struggle of women for equal rights in a democratic society, Lee naturally embraced the cause of her sisters in Puerto Rico. Throughout the island, she gave speeches and wrote articles defending their right to vote; the island's legislature, in 1929, would finally pass a law granting "literate" women the vote (universal suffrage was not won for all Puerto Rican women until six years later).
During the course of her feminist activism in Puerto Rico, Lee formed close ties with the leadership of the NWP. Since the passage of suffrage, the party's primary goal had been (and still is) to educate the public about the Equal Rights Amendment. Education was the tool the party used to create change — an approach in which Lee had undying faith. Just five years before Lee returned to Puerto Rico, Paul had authored the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing "equal justice under the law" for all citizens, regardless of their gender. This proposed amendment articulated what Lee had long believed was a social right of not only the women of the United States, but of all women in the Americas and the rest of the world.
Lee's unique position as both an adopted daughter of Puerto Rico — a virtual native in many people's eyes, given her marriage — and a born citizen of the United States, combined with her brilliant political mind and her rhetorical powers, gave her the credentials to speak out on behalf of Pan-American women. She had already established herself as a leading member of the Puerto Rican branch of the NWP.
In January 1928, as the delegate representing the women of Puerto Rico, she went to Havana to join forces with a large group from the NWP led by Doris Stevens, chair of the party's committee on international action. This group, composed of women from the United States as well as other nations of the Americas, had gathered there to confront the Sixth Pan-American Conference (of the twenty-one member nations of the Pan American Union), in order to demand an audience for women's rights. Specifically, Lee and her sister feminists wanted the members of the conference to ratify a treaty giving equal rights to men and women before the law in all twenty-one countries of the Pan American Union; drafted by Paul of the NWP, the proposed treaty was intended to move the consideration of women's rights into political debates throughout the hemisphere.
In her published report of the event, which later appeared in the Nation as a letter to the editor, Lee recounted:
Despite the expectations raised five years earlier, in 1923, not one woman was
included in the delegation of any country. Lee noted that the
"Sixth Conference [
] certainly did not dream of a feminine
invasion. Women had never disturbed the Pan-American delegates by
so much as a petition." The conference delegates argued that only
they were allowed to speak on the floor and that the meeting's
agenda had no room for discussion of a treaty on equal rights.
Addressing the conference with brilliant poise, Lee spoke elegantly and intelligently; and like the NWP's lead speaker, Doris Stevens, she invoked the ideals of Pan-Americanism:
Furthering her idea of a "Pan America" where freedom and equality truly reign, for she was also the only person representing Puerto Rico in any way at the conference (communicating ideas that were secretly in behalf of Puerto Rico's Suffragist Social League), she stated:
In an editorial that appeared on the afternoon following the women's speeches, Cuba's leading newspaper said that "we are glad the conference granted the women that hearing, else we should likely have seen something comparable to the storming of the Bastille!"
The Equal Rights Treaty was not ratified. However, Lee and her group of feminists did gain an immediate response from the delegates of the conference, who unanimously voted to have the report on equal rights received and discussed in plenary session rather than in one committee. When that report was made, a resolution was passed declaring that an Inter-American Commission of Women be organized to prepare information to enable the next Pan-American Conference to study constructively the civil and political equality of women. The commission would initially consist of seven women designated by the Pan American Union, and the number would be increased by the commission itself until each of the twenty-one member nations gained representation in it. The first inter-governmental agency in the world created expressly to ensure recognition of the civil and political rights of women, the commission was destined to form an integral part of the Pan American Union and subsequently the Organization of American States.
The creation of the commission, of which Stevens would serve as its first president, reflected the growing cooperation between the women of North and South America, a Pan-American sisterhood in which Lee would play a leading role in the years to come. In the Nation, she noted that "the enthusiasm and energy of the Cuban women was [an] unequivocal answer to all who had ever said (and how many they have been!) that the Latin woman does not want her rights; that the Latin woman will not speak in public; that the Latin woman is bound by customs which she cannot break." She concluded her report with a bold statement of her conviction: "The struggle for equal rights has become an inter-American movement. The women of no country will look upon the cause as won until it is won for all. Here at last is a unity of ideal and effort which establishes a real, a spontaneous, a spiritual commonwealth of Pan-America."
During the summer of 1928 (as well as 1929), Lee took a leave from the University of Puerto Rico to work as director of public relations for the Inter-American Commission of Women in Washington. After prolonged consultations with jurists and feminists, Stevens had decided that the vexed subject of the nationality of women would be the first subject of research by the commission. Lee conducted juridical research for this project, in addition to doing public relations work for the commission, and helping run its office.
To help gain support for the commission, she wrote articles and gave lectures about it. In the October 1929 issue of Pan-American Magazine, she published one such article, "The Inter-American Commission of Women: A New International Venture," in which she said:
In addition to doing articles and lectures in English, she did the same in Spanish, spreading the good news throughout the Americas.
Lee's marriage with Muñoz had become increasingly strained ever since their return to Puerto Rico in 1926. Their lives were diverging as they pursued their different passions for public life and politics, as when he had left her for the island in 1923. The family's financial security did not last long. In the summer of 1927, for largely political reasons, he was forced out of his job at La democracia and went to live in New York without Lee and their children. He had told a colleague "the flame trees" were giving him "indigestion," and that he needed to spend some time in New York, where "the evening lights of Fifth Avenue, as agreeable as usual, are a marvelous tonic." He staid at the swanky Vanderbilt Hotel, on the corner of Park Avenue and 34th Street. Initially, he busied himself as the representative of the Economic Commission of the Legislature of Puerto Rico, with the purpose of persuading American businessmen to invest in the island's economic development.
Two months after Muñoz had left, he sent Lee a cable from New York. He was flat broke, and needed her to send him some money; he had spent almost all of what little he had. At the time, Lee was essentially the main supporter of her household, on her annual starting salary of $1800 from the University of Puerto Rico. She responded to him with a letter that said:
Despite this tension which eased only sporadically, at the start of 1928, Lee and Muñoz were together in Havana at the Pan-American Conference, where he was relegated to the role of an English-Spanish interpreter. But then she went back to Puerto Rico, and he to New York. For nearly three years, he lived there on his own, earning some money from his writing, and also enjoying himself, as when he bought a beat-up Ford and traveled across the country.
In January 1930, Lee published her "Rich Port" in Mencken's American Mercury. This confessional poem, which later appeared in several anthologies, records her own misery in terms of Puerto Rico's. The poem alludes to the devastating earthquake of 1918; its epicenter was located northwest of Aguadilla in the Mona Canyon (between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic). Accompanied by a tidal wave that was twenty feet high, the earthquake had a magnitude of nearly eight on the Richter scale, and caused severe damage to numerous houses, factories, public buildings, bridges, and other structures. Here the devastation that Lee's marriage had suffered is likened to this natural disaster with its foreboding of doom:
When Muñoz returned from New York to Puerto Rico in early 1930, Lee was living with their children and his mother, and he stayed at the Palace Hotel. They would later live together in a certain fashion for a few years, however, before separating for good. It is hard to pinpoint exactly when, but he would ultimately leave her for another woman, a political associate of his, named Inés Mendoza, with whom he started a relationship in the late 1930s. The daughter of an illiterate jíbaro (peasant), she had become a schoolteacher, then joined Muñoz's peaceful revolution to free the poor jíbaros from hunger. She worked closely with him in his grassroots campaign, and traveled with him all over the island (in 1938, he recalls in a memoirs, in the "human and spiritual sense" his marriage with her began).
In June 1930, Lee took an extended leave of absence from the University of Puerto Rico, in order to work for the NWP in Washington. She lived at the NWP headquarters (Alva Belmont House) with her two children, and she served for two years as director of national activities, which involved writing publicity, arranging radio broadcasts as well as national and state conferences, and giving lectures on the subject of women's rights, in particular their right to work. The Depression was slowly beginning to affect working women and their jobs. Plants and offices were forced to fire hundreds of women employees, and many factories re-instituted old regulations prohibiting women from working at night.
Facing an economic calamity that could imperil the future progress of women's rights, the NWP launched a major nationwide campaign to protect women's employment. The party primarily campaigned in protest of laws and regulations that enabled bosses to fire women on the basis of marital status or job conditions, such as night jobs.
In accord with the NWP position, Lee argued all over the country against so-called protective legislation for women workers. Speaking about their right to work at night, she said: "The Woman's Party, as we should make clear, does not advocate night work. If night work is bad, it should be discontinued for both men and women. But it holds that night work is preferable to no work at all." She became widely known for her opposition to "any legislation on a sex basis" and her belief that all laws and regulations governing workers "should be based upon the nature of the work and not upon the sex of the worker."
In 1931, in line with these convictions, she battled the action of the Cotton Textile Institute that had discontinued night work for women in cotton textile plants both in the North and the South. Her opposition had no immediate effect, but later in the 1930s, the policy of non-discrimination against women workers, for which she argued using both the spoken and written word, later found its way into legislation in various states. (Discrimination against women in employment was not prohibited until the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, the year before Lee's death.)
This ardent feminist activism, together with her other efforts on behalf of women's rights, in particular her work with the Inter-American Commission of Women, would establish her as one of the prominent feminists of her day, advocating for social reform throughout the Americas.
Lee's report titled "Equal Rights Approved by American Institute of International Law," which had originally appeared in November 1931 in the NWP's weekly journal, Equal Rights, was published that year as a book by the Inter-American Commission of Women. The news pertained to the party's latest advances in its continued crusade to have its Equal Rights Treaty adopted — now by the upcoming Eighth Pan-American Conference, to be held in Buenos Aires. This publication included the text of the treaty. With her characteristic flair for rhetoric, she opened with these rousing words:
Stevens had also been selected to serve on the institute's special committee that was delegated to travel to Buenos Aires. This committee would render its services to the Pan-American Conference in the discussions about the proposed treaty, which the institute had just endorsed. Lee celebrated that "for the first time, a body of men has taken the wholly just and enlightened step of appointing a woman rapporteur of a committee on the rights of women." And about their endorsement of the treaty itself, she rejoiced in the fact that "never has Equal Rights been so quickened in the American hemisphere."
One of Lee's most important personal friendships was with journalist and feminist Ruby Black, who lived in Washington. They had been friends for several years, meeting through the women's movement, possibly first in Chicago. Black served the NWP as an editor of Equal Rights; for income, she ran her own news bureau serving daily newspapers in seven states. Lee's friendship with her would prove to be very significant for Puerto Rico, as well, because through her Muñoz was later able to meet Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR at the White House, and to gain their support for the cause of the island. (Black's relationship with ER started in 1933 when she covered her for the United Press, since the first lady allowed only women at her press conferences.)
While in Washington, Lee still found time to spend a term as associate editor of the Carillon, a quarterly magazine of poetry published there, and to contribute poems to Poetry, American Mercury, Commonweal, and New Republic, among other magazines.
The occasion of the first Pan American Day on April 14, 1931, inspired Lee to write "Pan American Day in the Park," an apparently unpublished work. It is a poem of protest, as much as it is a poem calling for Pan-Americanism. The new holiday called Pan American Day was (and still is) observed throughout the Americas; the date was chosen to commemorate April 14, 1890, when the Pan American Union was established. It became an annual event celebrating the diverse cultures of the Americas and stressing inter-American goodwill. But in 1931, the first year of the holiday, U.S. intervention had been taking place in Nicaragua for four years, and a pure celebration of Pan-Americanism was at odds with the political reality. In a departure from her confessional love poetry, Lee's narrative verse protests the abandonment of the American ideal of liberty:
This poem expresses Lee's commitment to social justice that was at the heart of her work for the NWP — namely, equal rights. It defines the Pan-American ideal of freedom for all. Interestingly, the final line of the fourth stanza had originally depicted the nations of the Americas living "close in friendship side by side." Reflecting her feminist consciousness, her revision portrays them as sisters, and thus creates the image of the American nations as family.
Returning to Puerto Rico late in the summer of 1932, she resumed her work for the university, as well as living with Muñoz. She continued to produce poems and essays in both English and Spanish, and also translations of work by Latin American writers. Her "Ballad," which appeared in Poetry in the fall of that year, is reminiscent of her early love lyrics. It closes a sequence of five poems under the title "Carib Summer." This particular lyric reveals her return to a painful struggle with love and the madness of it:
Only poetry offered her the language of indirection that she needed to validate her personal reality and to speak openly of the disaster her marriage had become, like her former "tale of old romance." The month after the October publication of her "Carib Summer," Muñoz was elected to Puerto Rico's Senate. The wife of a prominent public figure, Lee was known throughout the Americas by her married name, Señora Muna Lee de Muñoz Marín, and also as Mrs. Luis Muñoz Marín. But she always signed her own name to her poetry publications, and in this way further affirmed her own identity.
Her "Deliverance," published in the American Mercury in the spring of the following year, articulates an acceptance of her being on her own again, and an affirmation of the silver in the dark cloud of her life, namely, independence. The poem's very style expresses her independence, as much as it shows the influence of contemporary trends:
Romantic love — "the thought that lures and lingers and brightens the mind's dark crevice" — would no longer shape her life. She had become more self-reliant, in more ways than one, since writing her early lyric, "I Who Had Sought God" (later retitled "The Seeker"). Then, she was turning "blindly" to God with "a weary throng of [existential] questions" in her grief-stricken soul, "listening for heaven to thunder forth" her name. Now, as she says in "Deliverance": "If the awful apocalyptic vision flare and thunder about me, / Only within myself need I seek for a clue and a meaning."
Still, she struggled with the loneliness that her failed marriage had imposed upon her. Her "Alcatraz," published in Poetry in 1934, echoes the sentiment of the group of lyrics in Sea-Change called "Imprisoned," and depicts this imposed solitude, and her implicit struggle to endure her husband's abandonment of her, like the abandonment of her youth in the Southwest, which had left her feeling cut off from life:
The actual Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay had just that year been converted from a military prison into a federal prison, which was touted as virtually escape proof. Lee's lonely private life with its "harsh certainty of stone" marital reality felt that way to her. Like any prisoner, she envied the freedom of birds. But by taking flight with words in the composition of poetry, she found for herself "renewal of endurance" and "rapture" to help sustain her spirit.
At the same time, while forced to be so self-reliant, she had found a good measure of love in her relationship with her children, as shown in the opening poem of her "Carib Summer." Titled "Garden Episode," this poem celebrates her paternal grandmother and her daughter, Munita, then twelve years old:
The poem elaborates the differences and similarities that Lee could see in the line of women in her family, culminating with her Latin daughter, in whom she recognized her Anglo-Saxon grandmother:
It was Lee's grandmother who had instilled in her as a child an abiding love of flowers, which later would not merely decorate her poetry, but form an important element of its character. In celebrating her daughter of color with "the sudden flaming in her cheek and brow" and seeing in her a distinctive trait of this grandmother, Lee also celebrates the ethnic diversity and fusion of Latin- and Anglo-American cultures that she believed was the hope for the future of the Americas.
By 1935, as seen in her "Lyric to the Sun" which appeared in Commonweal, Lee could write more openly about her estrangement from Muñoz. She could say it in public. But more than that, she had moved beyond her resentment of his abandonment of her, and could celebrate life:
Not only did Lee write serious poetry during these years, she also composed lighthearted verse which she published in newspapers and popular magazines. On December 31, 1935, in the famous "The Conning Tower" column in the New York Herald Tribune, columnist Franklin P. Adams wrote whimsically: "We shall never be satisfied until we see a poem about Mauna Loa by Muna Lee" (located in Hawaii, Mauna Loa, the Earth's largest volcano, had just erupted again for the ninth time since 1900). Two months later, Lee responded with these lines, which appeared in "The Conning Tower" under the title "On Not Writing about Mauna Loa":
Among her diverse activities as a writer during the 1930s, Lee also branched out into murder mysteries — for fun and profit.
Between 1934 and 1938, under the pen name of Newton Gayle, she co-authored five mystery novels with Maurice Guinness, an Irishman and Shell Oil executive stationed in the Caribbean, who lived in San Juan: Death Follows a Formula (1935), The Sentry Box Murder (1935), Death in the Glass (1937), Murder at 28:10 (1936), and Sinister Crag (1938). (Gayle was her maternal grandmother's maiden name, and Newton his paternal grandmother's name.) A friend of Lee's, Guinness was married to the daughter of Dr. Bailey K. Ashford, whom Lee had celebrated in her 1928 essay, "Conquistador for Science," published in the North American Review.*
Their novels feature a wry British sleuth who solves crimes in Britain, the United States, and Puerto Rico, while occasionally referencing broader political themes. No less a publisher than Scribner's issued them; they received decent reviews, and were translated into Spanish and Italian. Although they lack the psychological torture required to satisfy more recent taste, they are still good reading — especially Murder at 28:10 for its ravaging hurricane in San Juan. About this book, which involves the murder of a Roosevelt New Dealer bent on Puerto Rican reform, the New Statesman and Nation said:
Of special interest is the occasional use of bilingual dialogue, which confronts readers with Spanish for the sake of literary verisimilitude, but also for the Pan-American challenge of it. Beyond that, Lee's contribution of vivid descriptions to the narrative is readily apparent, as seen in this passage about the impending hurricane:
The distinctive cadences of Lee's prose, together with her characteristic use of flower images to signify the goodness of nature, reveal her poetic voice. Guinness had nothing like it. Earlier in her career as a writer, during the mid-1920s, she had attempted to write an autobiographical novel; it was to be called Frontier — "the frontier of life, of course," she said, "as well as the other thing," namely, her life in Oklahoma — but it never came to fruition. She was essentially a poet, not a novelist.
During the 1930s, her professional activities were, as always, wide-ranging. In 1930, she started serving as a permanent member of the Council of the Poetry Society of America. From 1933 to 1939, she was literary and foreign news editor of La democracia. Since 1932, she was a contributing editor to Books Abroad, the worldly journal from Norman, Oklahoma, as well as contributing editor to Equal Rights, the weekly (until 1934), then semimonthly, magazine published by the NWP. In 1937, she edited Art in Review, a special retrospective issue of the University of Puerto Rico Bulletin that celebrated a decade of artistic development in Puerto Rico, which was published in December of that year.
In August 1939, on the campus of the University of Puerto Rico, Lee addressed the biennial Congress of the World Federation of Education Associations held there, at the unveiling of the bronze plaque commemorating the centenary of Eugenio María de Hostos, the Puerto Rican writer, patriot, and educational reformer (founder of the modern educational systems in Chile, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela). The plaque for Hostos's statue on the campus had been authorized by the Eighth Pan-American Conference. At the ceremony by the statue where the Congress delegates were gathered, Lee delivered her address which focused on the international significance of Hostos as an educator. It was an elegant and erudite speech that she began with charm and humor in a retrospective look at the world in 1839, the year of Hostos's birth:
After reviewing Hostos's achievements and legacy, she ended on a stirring note showing her capacity for rhetorical brilliance:
Her ability to shine at such public appearances and performances had grown over the years through her experience in a range of different contexts.
The 1930s saw Lee rise to prominence throughout the Americas for her diverse literary and political work. She had appeared in every edition of Who's Who in America since 1928. She appeared in the first (1933–34) and second (1936–37) editions of Quien es quien en Puerto Rico (Who's Who in Puerto Rico). The 1939–40 edition of the biographical dictionary, American Women (the official who's who of the women of the nation), included the basic information about her, along with a subtle revelation of her personality seen in the "hobby" category, where she entered just one thing: "islands." It is, moreover, noteworthy that the 1940 Federal Writers' Project publication, Puerto Rico: A Guide to the Island of Boriquén, listed her among the important "contemporary Puerto Rican writers" in its chapter on the island's cultural life, describing her as "a continental American living in Puerto Rico" who had "gained her high reputation as a poet on the mainland."
In April 1940, Holland's, The Magazine of the South published a glowing feature about her titled "Muna Lee: Poet and Feminist." She was at the time an active member of the Ibero-American Institute of the University of Puerto Rico, and of the governing council of the World Woman's Party founded by Alice Paul. This newly-organized international feminist venture was made urgent by the precarious position of women around the world; the party was dedicated to preserving and extending equality for women, and combating attempts in international treaties to take away their rights to employment, among other injustices. In Holland's, in response to the question about how she started writing poetry, Lee said:
Not mentioned was her lifelong and fierce inner need to gain, through the act of creation, a sense of order in her life of emotional extremes, and also to speak in public what only poetry allows, the truth and beauty of things that she forever sought and needed to articulate for her personal well-being.
At this time, Lee was playing a leading role in the planning and organization of a major literary event billed as the First Inter-American Writers' Conference of the University of Puerto Rico, to take place in the spring of the following year. This international gathering of writers was held during the course of ten days, in April 1941, at the university's campus in Río Piedras. Lee's encounter there with William Carlos Williams, who was an honored guest and speaker, was especially significant for both of them, since they would cross paths in the future about poetic matters of mutual concern, in particular those related to Latin American poetry in translation, and also his Puerto Rican roots.
This writers' conference aimed to stimulate an interest in writing among the students of the university (the public was also invited to attend), but its larger purpose was "to promote fuller understanding and mutual appreciation among the writers and intellectuals of the American Republics by bringing together a group of the outstanding writers of Latin America and the United States in an atmosphere of friendly cooperation and good will." Moreover, the conference embodied Lee’s personal Pan-American cause, as seen in the language of its publicity, for which she was responsible: "If the countries of the Western Hemisphere are to unite for the defense of their cultures and traditions, the success of their efforts will depend in large part upon the mutual understanding and esteem of the intellectuals of these countries."
In his featured lecture on poetic form, Williams emphasized that Latin America had much to offer the writers of the United States, and that its vital function was: "To introduce us to Spanish and Portuguese literature — pure and simple. And if to that literature, to make us familiar with its forms as contrasted with our own. For instance," he said, "What influence can Spanish have on us who speak a derivative of English in North America? To shake us free for a reconsideration of the poetic line."
Lee could not have been more pleased by Williams' appreciation of the literary genius of Latin America as well as his appeal for inter-American exchange among poets of the New World. In May she wrote him: "Ripples and phosphorescence still mark your Caribbean passage. You may be sure that Puerto Rico will not forget you and has very evidently taken you to her heart as her prodigal son."
In the fall of 1941, Lee began a new phase in her career that would span the rest of her life. When she was offered a position as a cultural affairs specialist in the State Department (she and Muñoz had just agreed to divorce; see long June letter to friends Ruby Black and her husband, describing the disintegrated marriage), she moved to Washington with her two children and her seventy-one-year-old mother who had joined her household. Her job was to confer daily with ambassadors and ministers of Latin American countries, arranging for exchange of literature, art, and films, and she was instrumental in persuading artists and writers — Faulkner among them — to go abroad as goodwill ambassadors for the United States. Indeed, she would become a valued counselor at all official levels in the State Department on matters related to Latin America.
In a news article about Lee headlined "Pan-American Literary Ties Urged on U.S.," which appeared in the New York Herald Tribune on November 30, 1941, she stressed the goodwill value of translation, saying that there was "no better way to develop friendship between the United States and Latin America than to translate and publish the literature of each region for the other." She briefly discussed her current work as a poetry translator, and added, "To the best of my belief, Latin-American poets are equal to any in the world." The article went on to describe her recent arrival in Washington and her position in the State Department, ostensibly just for a year's sabbatical leave.
Lee's government work was initially part of the broadening of Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy during the late 1930s in response to the gathering of war clouds in Europe and the Far East. Washington then stepped up its program of cultural exchange to help ensure the hemispheric solidarity of the Americas.
In addition to her new duties and responsibilities at the State Department, Lee was very much involved with New Directions's forthcoming publication of the bilingual Anthology of Contemporary Latin-American Poetry. The book's editor, Dudley Fitts, had invited her to contribute translations just before she left San Juan for Washington. The 667-page anthology would be a landmark publication. Nothing as comprehensive had appeared in the so-called modern era (cf. Alice Stone Blackwell's 1929 anthology, Some Spanish-American Poets), and, regrettably, nothing like it would appear for nearly three decades — nothing that could give the English-language audience a decent view of the vast range of poetic genius in South America.
The invitation to contribute to this anthology appealed to Lee not only because it would help further the Pan-American cultural relations to which she was dedicated, but also because she could engage herself with poetry, and pursue that passionate need of hers. The group of sixteen translators assembled for the book included John Peale Bishop, Angel Flores, Langston Hughes, H. R. Hays, Robert Fitzgerald, Rolfe Humphries, Lloyd Mallan, and Fitts himself, among others.
In September 1941, Fitts had asked Lee for help in a letter that became part of a lively yearlong correspondence between the two of them about this book project. He was "hard pressed for translators," to which she replied: "Why should you be? I'm here, and translating Spanish for my own pleasure has been my avocation for a long time." This was happy music to his ears. He valued her translations more than those produced by most of the other translators working for him; he "had to rewrite at least two thirds of all the material" they sent him.
Fitts wanted translations that had a "maximum of literal fidelity" — the translations could also be poems in their own right, but that was of secondary importance to him. In Lee he found a model translator whose renderings were both literal and poetic. "I can't tell you," he wrote to her in early October, "how strange and how refreshing it was to read your pieces and find that only by hairsplitting could I make any objections at all. And for that reason I want very much to send you some more things [ ]." She responded: "By all means send me more things — send me whatever you like. I like translating."
Lee worked on making translations for him whenever she could find the time. By the end of October, she sent him a group of poems that, he said, "couldn't have been better planned for this anthology!" These poems included specific translations he requested, as well as other translations she offered on her own (e.g., Vallejo's "Dregs"). He told her: "Every one is right bang in the period. You should be getting out this book, not I — and yet I could hardly wish that you were, for it is mostly an uninterrupted and highly ungrateful headache."
In mid-November, just as Lee was settling into her new life in Washington, she wrote to Fitts: "Naturally, work at the State Department will not interfere with my translating. The thing is — it just occurs to me — that someday this anthology of yours will be finished. And then what shall I do with the spare time that I never knew I had until it irrupted on my horizon?" She also contributed to the writing of the biographical notes about the poets represented in the anthology. The book was finally done by the summer of 1942, and was published in the fall of that year.
Lee contributed some thirty-seven different translations representing twenty-two poets from all over Latin America. Some of her work had been done previously, but she made many of her translations especially for this book project. Among the poets to whom she gave an English-speaking voice were Chile's Gabriela Mistral, Peru's César Vallejo, Argentina's Rafael Alberto Arrieta, Cuba's Eugenio Florit, Uruguay's Ildefonso Pereda Valdés, Mexico's Jaime Torres Bodet, Venezuela's Antonio Spinetti Dini, Guatemala's Rafael Arévalo Martínez, Honduras's Constantino Suasnavar, Costa Rica's Asdrúbal Villalobos, Ecuador's Jorge Carrera Andrade, and Puerto Rico's Luis Muñoz Marín [second edition].
Lee's translation of Muñoz's "Pamphlet" and "Proletarians," written in his youth, offered readers the poetic background of his current political work. In her translation of Vallejo's "Dregs," she re-created his complex images that sometimes work on two or even three levels, and she showed the poetic power of the Peruvian, whose profoundly humanitarian voice was little known at the time to English-language readers:
Her rendering of Mistral's "The Little Girl That Lost a Finger" offered the very different voice of the woman who in 1945 would become Latin America's first Nobel Laureate in Literature "for her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world":
Most impressive were Lee's nine translations of poems by Carrera Andrade, who was (and still is) considered not only the premier poet of Ecuador, but one of the foremost Spanish-language poets of the century. Her renderings of his work formed the body of the anthology's opening section, and included his "Sierra":
The poetic success of her many different translations stems from the rare combination of her near-native fluency in Spanish, her intimacy with Latin America and its literature, her critical astuteness, her knowledge of contemporary North American poetry, and her creative skills as a poet in English.
Among the grateful readers of her Carrera Andrade in particular was William Carlos Williams. She had sent him a group of her translations in July 1942, before the anthology's publication, and he responded enthusiastically with the following note:
Williams concluded with these words of respect for Lee's work: "Thank you for introducing me to Andrade. We all need to know each other better, we need it badly. We need it more than anything else in the world" [entire letter].
The subsequent edition of the anthology, published in 1947, would include the addition of a single poem — "Song to the Glory of the Sky of America" (1942) — by Uruguayan poet-physician Emilio Oribe, translated by Lee with lyric brilliance, that became the book's final word and called for Pan-American harmony: "A poem from grey barrens tearing free / Where the North Pole hypnotizes the Pole Star, / Rainbow-like above the crystal of twenty countries arches far, / Then again plunges strong / Amid icebergs of the South into the sea."
The translations of Carrera Andrade that Lee contributed to the New Directions anthology were part of another book project on which she was working at the time. She was translating his País secreto (Secret Country), a book of poems originally published in 1940. A diplomat as well as a writer, he had started serving as the Consul General of Ecuador that year in San Francisco, and Stanford University Press had expressed an interest in publishing her translation of this book. The Office of Pan-American Relations of Stanford's Hoover Library on War, Revolution and Peace (now Hoover Institution) supported this publication initiative.
Lee and Carrera Andrade started corresponding soon after his arrival in San Francisco, while she was still living in Puerto Rico. It was an exchange of letters filled with mutual admiration and respect. He thought her translations of his poetry were "unsurpassable" (insuperables), and encouraged her to translate his work. They often discussed the ideas behind his images, in order to clarify them for her translations. Concerning any confusion caused by what he called his "poor images" (pobres imágenes), he told her that he trusted in "the brilliant insight of Muna Lee to make them beautiful" (la penetración luminosa de Muna Lee para su embellecimiento) in English.
In the February 1942 issue of Poetry, Lee published a review of his Registro del mundo (Record of the World), a new anthology of his poetry written between 1922 and 1939. Despite his great literary stature, no collection of his poems was yet available in English translation; all that had appeared in book form so far was a slim volume presenting a single long poem, "Canto al puente de Oakland," which Stanford's Hoover Library published in 1941 in a bilingual edition titled To the Bay Bridge, translated by Eleanor Turnbull.
For Carrera Andrade, poetry was the exaltation of human hope. By experimenting with poetic form, he sought the most effective means of conveying the stormy experience of poetic inspiration. His work is characterized by objective yet emotional descriptions of physical objects, simple vocabulary, and brilliant metaphorical images; and he often treats social themes. In her review, Lee says: "All his poetry has its own accent, its own freshness; and most of its images — it blooms profusely with images — are set down with the shrewdness and the sagacity of a peasant or a child." Elaborating on his individual style, she adds:
Lee offers as examples of his work her translations of two poems that would be included in Secret Country, "Nameless District" and "Biography for Use of the Birds," which appear in the anthology (they were not included in País secreto, but were added to the book in English, as a consequence of her telling him: "I love these poems so much that it is hard to bear their omission!"). About "Nameless District," she says that it shows Carrera Andrade at his best as a "single-hearted regional poet":
Around the time of the publication of this review, Carrera Andrade asked John Peale Bishop to write an introduction to Lee's translation of his book. In a letter to fellow patrician poet Allen Tate, Bishop mentioned this project, and said he thought that she "was one of the best translators we discovered for the Fitts anthology." He was working as publications director in the New York office of the Council of National Defense, in the section dedicated to inter-American cultural affairs, which had supported the New Directions publication.
Lee was very pleased about Bishop's offer to contribute the introduction to Secret Country. She told him in a letter written in January 1943 that it gave her "deep satisfaction to know" he was going to write it: "I believe with you that his [Carrera Andrade's] problems are the problems of us all. I believe also that no one comprehends those problems better than you. It will add a fresh delight to the always quickening attention with which I re-read even the most familiar of his poems to have this interpretation of his work as companion in the reading." About her work, she explained, "I think I have said in English in every case what he has said in Spanish, and I believe that even in the obscurest cases I have glimpsed his original meaning." A few years later, Secret Country would be published by Macmillan, the publisher of her Sea-Change.
During this period, still speaking out for the betterment of women throughout the Americas, Lee addressed the 1943 Pan American Day Conference on the Contribution of Women to Hemisphere Solidarity. This gathering was sponsored jointly by the New York Times, National Council of Women, and Pan American Women's Association, and was held at the New York Times Hall in New York. She talked about the war-charged significance of the Caribbean countries, and the current role of women in the Caribbean, "where again the Greater and the Lesser Antilles, the Leeward and the Westward Isles, are outposts, sentries and bastions of the Americas." She argued that "women in the Caribbean area are, politically and educationally speaking, among the most progressive in our hemisphere." And she maintained:
Lee cited numerous historical facts to support her claims, and concluded her address with a vision of Caribbean women contributing much to the war effort and actively engaged in social action in defense of the Americas:
Lee's remarks appeared five days later in the Puerto Rico World Journal, the San Juan daily English-language newspaper that published a regular column — "‘M. L.’ in Washington" — that she contributed to it for a brief period during the early 1940s.
In 1943, Lee proposed a creative Pan-American project to poet Archibald MacLeish, then serving in Washington as the Librarian of Congress. She wanted to collaborate with him on writing a series of programs for NBC radio's new Inter-American University of the Air; the NBC Inter-American University of the Air was the first endeavor in network history in the United States to provide instruction in a variety of subjects, correlated with existing courses in universities and colleges throughout the nation. MacLeish had developed over the years a strong interest in Latin America. In his 1939 "Remarks on the Occasion of the Dedication of the Hispanic Room in the Library of Congress," he made the following comment while making reference to the importance of the Spanish chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo:
Expressing in poetic language the spirit of Pan-Americanism she shared with MacLeish, she said the American Story broadcasts were "based on the belief that there is in all our lands and all our natures, underneath the differences and variations, a core that is essentially American and identical; that the experience of being born on the free soil of America and growing into the free American air gives a shape to the American mind as distinctive as the shape of the live-oak leaf, and as unlike the European oak's."
Lee maintained that whether the discoveries along the American coasts were made by the Spanish and Portuguese or by the English and Dutch and Scandinavians, the pattern was similar, and the struggles with the native peoples in the interior came about in much the same way. She did all the research for the broadcasts, and MacLeish stitched the material together. In the first script, he said the purpose of the broadcasts was "to bring together from the ancient chronicles, the narratives, the letters, from the pages written by those who saw with their own eyes and were part of it, the American record — the record common to all of us who are American, of whatever American country and whatever tongue — the record of the American experience common to us all."
In addition to research, Lee's contribution included making translations of all documentary texts in Spanish, Portuguese, or French that were not available in English. She also wrote the handbook that accompanied the series, recounting the stories of diverse figures in the European discovery of America; this handbook, American Story: Historical Broadcast Series of the NBC Inter-American University of the Air, was published by Columbia University Press in 1944. That same year, MacLeish published the scripts in a collection titled The American Story; Ten Broadcasts, which he dedicated to her:
A POET OF THE AMERICAS
Indeed, he credited her with the success of the series, praising her as "a poet [ ] a sound scholar, a mistress of tongues, and a profound believer in a cause." And he told her in a letter: "Thanks to you — not to me at all, but to you — The American Story has really begun to do the work you and I wanted it to do."
With her distinguished credentials as an envoy of the Americas, Lee was widely sought after as a speaker. Her talks addressed different aspects of inter-American relations. In May 1944, she gave one such talk in Columbus, Ohio, as guest speaker at the annual dinner of the local chapter of Theta Sigma Phi, the honorary journalism sorority (now Association for Women in Communications). The title of her talk was "A North American Looks South." She started by saying that her early education had led her to believe "American history was a phrase exclusively descriptive of the United States. Fortunately, though," she added, "there are many roads leading from such a morass of ignorance as all that, and the first one that opened to me was through language." The written and the spoken word, she stressed, offered a direct way to understand the other American nations. She talked about books as "windows," and recommended Virginia Prewett's The Americas and Tomorrow, Blair Niles's Passengers to Mexico, and the soon-to-be published American Story.
Citing various examples of similarities between the Americas in geography, history, and art, through the use of both North and South American literature, Lee concluded her talk with the remark, "When I look south through whatever window, I see what I believe any citizen of any of the southern republics sees when he looks north: America." She then read several of her poems with a Caribbean setting, and three of her translations of poems by Carrera Andrade.
Also in 1944, Lee published Pioneers of Puerto Rico, a children's book for which MacLeish wrote the introduction. This work sketches the history of Puerto Rico from colonial times to the poverty-ridden present of Muñoz Marín's efforts to readjust the island's economy. The book was part of the publisher's "New World Neighbors" series, and was designed to give children of elementary school age, in story-book fashion, a panoramic view of the history and spirit of Puerto Rico. That same year, her translation of an essay on the challenges of Pan-Americanism, written by the celebrated Venezuelan writer and diplomat, Mariano Picón Salas, was published by the Pan American Union's Division of Intellectual Cooperation as a book titled On Being Good Neighbors.
In August 1945, Puerto Rico's major newspaper, El mundo, published a glowing appreciation of Lee's Pioneers of Puerto Rico, as well as her life and other literary work. It was, on the whole, a very positive and flattering editorial about her. But a remark about her relationship with Puerto Rico, now that she was living in Washington, moved her to write a letter to the editor to correct what she acknowledged was a detail that might appear insignificant, but was, nevertheless, of utmost importance to her:
Lee had long ago become Puerto Rican in her heart. She would feel this way for the rest of her life, even more so with the births of her grandchildren, and the Island would continue to be at the center of her life.
Adding yet another facet to her multi-faceted career, in 1945, Lee started to serve a four-year term as president of the Washington-based Society of Woman Geographers. She was a founding member, and had served on its executive council in the years just prior to her presidency. Established in 1925 by four exceptionally accomplished women in New York (Marguerite Harrison, Blair Niles, Gertrude Shelby, and Gertrude Emerson Sen) — all recognized explorers — the society had been created to bring together women, like Lee, who shared ambitions and interests in unusual world exploration and achievements. No women's organization then existed for the sharing of worldwide experiences, the exchange of knowledge derived from field work, and the encouragement of women pursuing geographical exploration and research.
The Society of Woman Geographers filled this need. Its name was intended to mean "geographer" in the broadest sense to include such allied disciplines as anthropology, geology, biology, archaeology, oceanography, and ecology. Specialized aspects of the arts rounded out the broad spectrum of worldwide interests and professional activities of the society's members. The membership included (as it still does) women "explorers at heart" whose work involved extensive travel in the investigations of little-known or unique places, peoples, or things in the world. Lee's long involvement with this organization stemmed from her diverse interests in the Americas, natural history, feminism, and the arts.
When Secret Country finally appeared in 1946, critics responded favorably and excitedly to it. This publication, which included a poetic, critically astute introduction by Bishop, was the first major translation of Carrera Andrade's poetry (not until 1972 would another be published, belatedly, in the United States). M. L. Rosenthal gave it high praise in the New York Herald Tribune, saying "Jorge Carrera Andrade is a poet for Americans to love and study" — "he thinks in images, and surely he must always have at hand a thousand simple, beautiful appropriate images for every experience known to man." Rosenthal stressed that with "an imagination so muscular and finely trained that it can handle any grouping of sense-effects and ideas without straining," the Ecuadorian poet "puts to shame much of our North American groaning after impossible images to symbolize inadequate experience." In the New York Times, Babette Deutsch reviewed the book in glowing terms:
About Lee's translations, she said that "the poet himself was correct in describing them as 'exceptionally good and very beautiful.'" The Yale Review said that "even where she has departed slightly from the actual words used she has rendered the text with fidelity and poetry."
More high praise of Lee's translation came from Donald Walsh. In December 1946, at the annual meeting of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, held in Washington, Walsh delivered a paper in which he reviewed the year's publishing activity in terms of Spanish American literature, and he closed with the following statement: "I have not included in this paper translations from Spanish American literature, but I must mention one book that is a literary event in both languages: Muna Lee's Secret Country, translations of thirty poems of Jorge Carrera Andrade, Ecuador's most famous poet. [ ] Muna Lee has translated him with perfect understanding and with a poetic skill that matches, and at times exceeds, that of the poet himself. This slender volume must be ranked with that small group of translations that are true re-creations of great literature in a new language."
Praising her work in a letter to her, MacLeish said: "Knowing how pitifully inadequate my grasp — the word 'command' won't come — of Spanish is, you will know that I can speak of them only as poems in themselves. Speaking of them so, there is no question whatever of their authenticity. If your poet is as good as you make him he is more than remarkable. He is what one has always hoped to find." More praise of Secret Country came later from another poet friend, Carl Sandburg, whom she had first met years ago in the offices of Poetry in Chicago. "Dear Muna," he wrote, "Tell Andrade I have read him in Spanish once & your translations six times & that as writers I feel we are brothers" — he was his "brother in the poetry quest a little more than any other in this hemisphere."
Lee's artistry as a translator can be seen in her translation of Carrera Andrade's "Biography for the Use of the Birds," in which, as she had said in her review of his Registro del mundo, he voices "that sense [ ] of being carried too fast and too far by the shifting currents of the world":
This particular version shows the polishing work she would do in the process of making a translation, in her effort to re-create the poetic quality of the original Spanish. The rendering she had presented in her review was rougher, its language not yet fully naturalized in English, as seen in the poem's opening lines:
Very much a process writer in general, Lee knew only too well that faithful and poetic translations require time to make, in particular when working with the deceptively simple, yet complex, language of poets like Carrera Andrade. She understood that the act of translation is at once critical and creative. Although she could not replicate the music of his Spanish, she also understood that for a translation to have literary value, it has to be composed as if a poem written in English with verbal music of its own, true to the "sound" of the original. To her, translation meant "continual experiment, continual attempt," as she explained to Bishop in her correspondence with him. "It is all nonsense to say that the way of the translator is hard," she added, "it is difficult sometimes, as mountain climbing often is, but it has the same delights and rewards."
Lee's demanding job at the State Department kept her busy both in and out of the office. Her public speaking, as always, was a major part of it, as shown by the notice of her recent lectures in the April 1946 issue of The Americas, a new quarterly review of inter-American cultural history (to which she contributed numerous book reviews over the years):
She spoke effectively and engagingly on each occasion, as indicated by the letters of gratitude she received. "Miss Lee was delightful" and "the best program we have had" were typical of the comments made by her audiences, which these letters relayed to her. Although known in public as Miss Muna Lee, she and Muñoz were still legally married, but that would soon change.
On November 15, 1946, after more than a decade of estrangement and separation, they finally were divorced legally. The following day he married Mendoza, with whom he had been living and with whom he had already fathered two children. His marriage to her would have bitter implications for Lee. Soon to be Puerto Rico's first lady, Mendoza made mention of Lee's name taboo in Puerto Rico, motivated by both jealousy and political image-consciousness; she did not want the public image of her husband — as well as hers — to be sullied in any way.
In 1948, he would become Puerto Rico's first elected governor, serving four terms for a total of sixteen years and establishing his place in history as the "father of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico." Attention paid to his relationship with his first wife could be painfully embarrassing for both him and Mendoza. After all, Catholicism, the dominant faith in Puerto Rico, frowned heavily on divorce, with the attitude that an absolute divorce can never occur, at least after a marriage has been consummated. But more than that and more than his previous adulterous relationship with her that more or less was socially acceptable, Mendoza needed to erase Lee's name from public memory in order to rewrite history and obscure her own adultery as a married woman (with two young children from this first marriage) living with Muñoz. That behavior was not acceptable in Puerto Rico.
Even though Lee's marriage to Muñoz had dissolved long before their actual divorce — a fact she had come to accept — and the emotional pain she had endured was no longer a living reality of hers, the legal process and event must have struck a sad chord in her heart in which love, for the second time, had been "like a hangman." Now, at the age of 51, she was in every way Miss Muna Lee again.
Three days after the divorce proceedings were completed, Lee sent a letter to her daughter, Munita, in which she explained: "I really mind less than I had expected. In a sense it is a relief, as anything definite and above all definitive must be, in comparison with incompletion, tenuousness and uncertainty." Lee did not want her daughter to feel "too badly" that her marriage to her father had been terminated legally. Moreover, in keeping with the loving person she was, she told her: "And don't stop being friends with your father. He wants your love, and needs it, and he has always loved you dearly."The following year, Lee published The Cultural Approach: Another Way in International Relations, co-authored with Ruth Emily McMurry, who also had long experience in the field of cultural relations. MacLeish wrote the cogent introduction. This publication would be the last book of Lee's own writing that she published in her lifetime (it would be reprinted in 1972 by Kennikat Press). It documents the efforts of various nations to promote cultural and intellectual exchange. Like McMurry, she had long been deeply concerned with familiarizing cultural output across national borders, believing that only through knowledge of each other can diverse peoples manage amicable relations.
In The Cultural Approach, Lee and McMurry provide a summary of the official information about bilateral long-range programs of cultural relations as carried on since 1900 by some ten countries, France, Germany, Japan, USSR, Great Britain, four republics of Latin America, and the United States. Writing in the aftermath of the Second World War, the authors conclude:
The book's broader significance at the time of its original publication was its implication that the entire problem of the conduct of foreign affairs urgently required re-examination. The years immediately after the war would see the demise of the old Pan-American movement and the rise of the United States as a post-war leader and protagonist of the Cold War. Lee’s work with the State Department continued, and while culture had become significant to U.S. foreign policy, she was never complicit in the covert propaganda wars to be waged in the fifties and sixties. She would never willingly involve herself with programs of cultural relations used as "instruments of aggression." Always noble and sincere, while open-eyed, she remained true to her humanistic Pan-Americanism throughout the coming years.
In April 1947, Lee made a return trip to Mississippi to speak at Blue Mountain College for the revival of its Southern Literary Festival, which had been suspended during the war. Five years before, she had made her first return trip — after a "lifetime of absence" — to speak at Hinds Community College, in her hometown of Raymond. At Blue Mountain, she gave a talk on writing titled "Poetry Every Day," in which she professed:
Lee was introduced to the Blue Mountain audience as a "poet, translator and international leader for equal rights for women." Although she had only lived in Mississippi during the first seven years of her life, and then spent a couple more years there during her college years, she was considered an important Southern writer; early Mississippi collections such as Ernestine Deavours's The Mississippi Poets (1922) and Alice James's Mississippi Verse (1934) include her as a prominent poet. (She was also considered an Oklahoma poet: her biography appears in the 1939 Handbook of Oklahoma Writers, and her verse in The Oklahoma Anthology for 1929, among other regional collections.)
Two years later, in 1949, Lee published another major translation, A History of Spain, written by the distinguished Spanish historian, Rafael Altamira. This 700-page book — the last book, in fact, that she would publish in her lifetime — provides a history of Spain written for the general reader, covering prehistoric times to the 1940s, and reveals reciprocal influences of the outside world, including the voyages of discovery and colonization in the Americas. Although primarily a cultural history, it discusses political events and personalities. The Nation said it was "one of the best" guides to the Spanish story available in English. For Lee, the experience of translating this history allowed her to further explore for herself a history to which she felt connected.
In November 1950, soon after the announcement that Faulkner had won the Nobel Prize in Literature (the as-yet unawarded 1949 prize), Lee played a major role in getting him to go to Stockholm to receive it in person. He had refused to make the trip. It was an unwelcome imposition on him at the time; he was more interested in staying in Mississippi to go on his annual hunting trip with his buddies. Considerable disappointment was expressed by leading Swedes. In the face of international embarrassment over his refusal to go, State Department officials were much concerned, but at a loss about what to do.
According to Faulkner's biographer, Joseph Blotner, the American embassy in Sweden turned for advice to one of its former officers, Morrill Cody, a career man then in Paris. He advised Eric Bellquist, first secretary and public affairs officer, to contact Lee. Cody mistakenly thought that Faulkner and Lee knew each other because of their connections in Mississippi, but she nevertheless proved to be the right choice. Lee turned to one of the most distinguished female members of the bar in the South, Lucy Somerville, who suggested that she try Faulkner's early mentor and fellow townsman, Phil Stone, whom Lee knew from her student days at Ole Miss; she also suggested her cousin, Ella Somerville, who lived in Faulkner's town of Oxford.
With the Nobel ceremony just weeks away, Lee called Ella Somerville who advised her not to try to work through Stone, because she felt that he and Faulkner were on the outs. Faulkner's friend Colonel Hugh Evans was recommended instead. He might be able to act as an intermediary for Stockholm and Washington. At the time of Lee's call to him, he was out duck-hunting, but when he finally returned her call, he agreed to help; he would try to persuade Faulkner to go.
Lee had made major progress. A week later, after Faulkner returned from his hunting trip, Evans explained to him that he had talked with Lee, and how much the government wanted him to make the Stockholm trip. As time seemed to speed up and tensions heightened, Lee's efforts together with those of Faulkner's immediate family (who could not do it alone) finally convinced the man that he had to go to Sweden to accept the prize.
Lee's relationship with Faulkner grew from this point. They would later talk by telephone and correspond with each other about his going on goodwill missions abroad. In 1954 and 1961 (the year before his death), she would persuade him to make two trips to South America — Brazil and Venezuela, respectively — to help further Pan-American cultural relations. She also got him to go to Denver in 1959 to serve as "consultant" at the Seventh National Conference of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, of which she was program coordinator; its formal title was "Cultures of the Americas: Achievements in Education, Science, and the Arts."
Lee had tapped Faulkner's very real and deep patriotic impulses. More than that, she had his respect not simply as a government official, but as a fellow artist and Mississippian. Blotner points out that if such appeals to Faulkner to serve as a goodwill ambassador had come from anyone other than her, he probably would have refused.
When, in April 1961, Faulkner traveled to Venezuela, the formal occasion of his two-week visit was the year-long celebration of the Sesquicentennial of Venezuelan Independence. He would take part in several special programs, and also receive the Order of Andrés Bello, the country's highest civilian award. In order to read his acceptance speech in the native language of his presenters, and thereby make the ultimate goodwill gesture, he arranged to have what he had written in English translated into Spanish; it is speculated that his interpreter in Venezuela was the translator. After Faulkner gave his speech, he took from the buttonhole the prized rosette of the Legion of Honor (the premier French order and decoration) and replaced it with that of the Order of Andrés Bello. The great success of his Venezuelan visit pleased Lee, who was responsible for it, as much as it pleased the State Department.
She later made an English translation of the Spanish rendering, which had been published in the Caracas newspaper, El universal, the day after the ceremony. For more than three decades, until the original single-page holograph draft was found, scholars thought that Faulkner's original English version had been lost. They relied on Lee's "second-hand" translation. In his Faulkner biography, Blotner presents a lengthy excerpt from it in his account of the award ceremony, without identifying its origin, as if Faulkner's own words; her translation, with proper attribution, appears in A Faulkner Miscellany (1974).
In 1950, the month before her initial involvement with Faulkner, Lee received a commendable service award from the State Department "for exceptional contributions in the field of Latin American culture during the last twenty-five years and for the fostering of friendly relations with the Latin American republics through her literary achievements," and in 1951 she was promoted to cultural coordinator in the Office of Public Affairs of the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs. She served as chief of the South American Affairs Section. Much sought after as an adviser, in the remaining fifteen years of her life she appeared as a United States delegate at many conferences around the world.Her political activity on behalf of women's rights had become limited as a consequence of her other commitments. In a revealing letter she sent in 1954 to Amelia Walker, the national chair of the NWP, Lee makes clear her undying support for the party and its feminist mission, namely, its proposed equal rights amendment to the Constitution:
Lee's statement that she was "far from meriting this honor" was typical of her modesty. Her ability to help lead the NWP had been made clear long ago. Although she was not able to formally join the NWP's leadership, her sympathy with the party remained strong. Her official duties that prevented her from working with the NWP would, nonetheless, allow her to contribute to the cause of women by serving the State Department as, for instance, an "Adviser on the United States Delegation to the Eleventh General Assembly of the Inter-American Commission of Women" held in June 1956 in the Dominican Republic.
Lee's work as a literary critic continued. Since the early 1920s, she was often invited to review newly published books. In reviewing for Américas Stanley Williams's landmark 1955 publication, The Spanish Background of American Literature, she pointed out how misleading it is "to limit 'American' to the 'United States' and to employ 'background of' where 'contributions to' or even 'currents in' would seem preferable." Nonetheless, she welcomed this two-volume critical work that addresses the history of Spanish culture in the Americas and the Pan-American literary tradition, since none as comprehensive had yet appeared in English. It is still considered an essential text for anyone who wishes to undertake a comparative study of literary relations between the United States and Spanish America. She acknowledged that "not everything could be included from so ample a field, of course; not even in a listing."
Still, she lamented the absence of "at least mention of the fact that Robert Frost's first poem — from his own account, it would seem his first consciously creative impulse toward poetry — was inspired by the story of Cortés." She also cited other important omissions, such as acknowledgment of "the recurrent reflections in Williams Carlos Williams's poetry and prose of his mother's vivid lifelong recollections of her Puerto Rican girlhood [ and] the haunting, brilliant, evanescent Hispanic names and illusions that flit like hummingbirds through Emily Dickinson's poetry (not singing there, but shining)."
The final omission she pointed out reveals her personal feelings as much as her critical judgement: "And one wonders why Luis Muñoz Marín is mentioned in passing because of a book review rather than for his own varied writings in Spanish and in English and for the bilingual literary magazine La Revista de Indias, which he edited in New York as a young man." She always cared for him and respected his achievements, and despite their personal history, she always took the high road in public where he was concerned. In reality, as her friend MacLeish recalled: "She never ceased nor desisted to be very much in love with him and the fact that he shunted her off and married again didn’t make any difference to her feelings. She was simply devoted to him."
By this time, Lee was no longer actively publishing her poetry in magazines, though she was still writing verse and still highly regarded as a poet for her earlier publications. In 1960, in recognition of her importance, the Library of Congress invited her to give a reading of her work that would be recorded for its Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature; and in April, this recording was made. Speaking with a strong voice graced by the Southern accent that she never lost, she introduced herself and her work:
The very list of the poems' titles reveals the range of geography and personal experience that shaped her life:
By ending her reading with "The Seeker," the closing poem of Sea-Change in which she affirmed her youthful quest for continued development as a woman and poet, she reaffirmed its vision of earthly truth and beauty, and her unceasing commitment to them (listen to her entire reading).
Also in April 1960, Lee traveled to Tufts University to be the guest speaker in its series called the Steinman Poetry Lectures. On the 13th of the month, the eve of Pan American Day, she gave her lecture titled "Two Seventeenth-Century Women: Mistress Anne Bradstreet and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz." She had given this lecture before; it was a favorite of hers, bringing together her passions for poetry, feminism, and Pan-America. The first time she presented it was at the Pan American Union in Washington, in April 1954, when she addressed the Biennial Convention of the National League of American Pen-Women; the title of that version was "Two Seventeenth-Century Pen-Women: Anne Bradstreet of Massachusetts and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz of Mexico."
She made it clear in her opening remarks that "in comparing their personalities and their lives," she was "not implying, nor could any serious critic imply, any equality of their genius." Sor Juana was "the greatest woman poet whom the whole of America has produced," and despite her literary achievements, Anne Bradstreet was simply not a great poet. New to Lee's lecture was the following passage about the two poets:
To conclude her lecture, Lee read a few of her translations of Sor Juana's sonnets. Among them was the following stinger, which, in view of her own travails with love during her youth, gave her a well-matched persona, and to which she gave a natural lyric voice:
This translation had been made nearly four decades earlier during the period of Lee's excited discovery of Sor Juana's poetry, about which she published her perceptive essay, "A Charming Mexican Lady," in the American Mercury in 1925 — she told Mencken, then, that Sor Juana was “the first feminist in this hemisphere." Her poetic renderings of Sor Juana in English expressed beautifully the Mexican's dramatic use of paradox and positive contradiction. At the age of sixty-five, Lee still had the intellectual vitality of her youth that enabled her to portray in vivid terms these two sisters of poetry — each of whom, as she emphasized in her lecture, had been hailed in her own day as the "Tenth Muse" of America.
In March 1962, in recognition of her career achievements as a Pan-Americanist, Lee was elected to the Inter-American Academy of the University of Florida, as one of the fifty living leaders in the hemisphere who had done the most to improve and advance inter-American understanding and cultural cooperation. The following year, the executive director of the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs nominated her for the State Department's Distinguished Service Award. In his impassioned letter to the honor awards committee, he said:
He concluded with the statement: "Bestowal of a 'Distinguished Service Award' on Miss Lee would have favorable repercussions throughout academic, intellectual and cultural circles in the United States and throughout the hemisphere, taking her out of the category of a prophet without honor in her own country. It would also appropriately crown her long career of service, which has only two more years to run before mandatory retirement."
Despite the strong support Lee had for this special recognition, it was not bestowed on her, at least not officially. The nomination itself, of course, meant much to her. But at this point, at the age of sixty-eight, she had already received several high honors for her work: the Commendable Service Award of the State Department (1950), Medal of the Fundación Internacional Eloy Alfaro of Ecuador (1954), Star of the Fundación Internacional José Gabriel Duque of the Dominican Republic (1954), Public Citation of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women (1961), and Meritorious Award of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs for “commendable service as a public servant” (1962), in addition to her recent election to the Inter-American Academy.
Toward the end of her busy career with the State Department, working tirelessly as always for Pan-American union, she started to translate a collection of essays — most on literary figures — by Puerto Rican writer and critic José Agustín Balseiro, which the University of Miami Press would publish in 1969, after her death. The press had received a Rockefeller Foundation grant for the translation, but this was a project Lee never finished herself. Her daughter, Muna Muñoz Lee, who had become a professional Spanish-English translator, would make the translation in her mother's place.
Balseiro's essay explicitly on inter-American relations gave the book its title, The Americas Look at Each Other. Having set himself the goal of interpreting the spirit of Latin- and Anglo-American cultures to the other, he had become a cultural ambassador in the United States, where he lived for most of his adult life. His writings on the arts and the role of the artist as a conduit between those cultures earned him praise throughout the world, especially within the Spanish-speaking countries. Among the many favorable critical responses to the book, the review in Library Journal made note that "the title essay should be required reading for anyone involved in Latin-American policy making."
Balseiro argued that the sooner we approach our neighbors by the disinterested paths of art, literature, scholarship, and open-hearted friendship, the sooner we will demolish the prejudices that hamper the constructive development of human nature. Lee was of the same mind; she had long embraced the same ideal. Although she never finished her final undertaking as a translator of Balseiro's work, it was intended to be — like most of her translation ventures — another expression of her lifelong dream for the Americas — another labor of love for her "commonwealth of Pan-America."
Lee's spirit and energy sustained her until the end of her life. She was constantly in flight, appearing as a delegate at conferences all over the world. When she retired from the State Department in February 1965, she still had ambitious plans. At her retirement ceremony she said: "I expect to be just as active in inter-American affairs as I was previously. Now I will have more opportunity and time to devote to my special interests — hemisphere relations — from a personal angle." She also planned to use her new leisure to pursue literary projects, especially poetry: "You must have leisure to write poetry; time to dream and to think," she said. With her characteristic vigor, she looked forward to returning to Puerto Rico, her legal residence for the past forty-odd years, and where her two children and seven grandchildren lived. She owned a beautiful home there, in Old San Juan, overlooking the bay.
One of the oldest houses in Puerto Rico, Lee's home — located at 2 Calle del Sol — had originally been the residence of conquistador-colonizer Juan Ponce de León, the first Spanish governor of the island, then called Borinquén. With retirement in mind, Lee purchased it in 1958, and oversaw its restoration that brought back the beauty of its centuries-old colonial architecture. She had made it a sanctuary of her own, filling it with her collection of books and paintings and memorabilia from her travels of the world. Among her antique furniture, mostly Spanish in style, was a maple folding-top desk from the old schoolhouse of Raymond, Mississippi.
But just two weeks after her return to Puerto Rico, Lee was admitted to the Mimiya Clinic in San Juan: the recently diagnosed cancer in her lungs (secondary to breast cancer treated in the late 1950s) was taking its toll. And without ever leaving the hospital, she died peacefully there — on April 3, 1965 — surrounded by the "flame-trees and tree-ferns and frail white orchises" that she had celebrated in her poem, "Rich Port." In keeping with her wishes for a prompt burial, a funeral service (closed casket at her request) was held for her that day in the afternoon, and she was buried in the old cemetery by the sea, not far from her home.
The next day her obituary appeared in the New York Times which acknowledged her achievements as a "poet, author, translator and lecturer" whose "works were published throughout North and South America"; her activism as an "enthusiastic advocate" of women's rights and "exporter" of this cause; and her public service as the "cultural coordinator in the Office of Public Affairs of the State Department's Bureau of Inter-American Affairs." Hers was the lead obituary in the Washington Post:
U.S. Cultural Official
The article highlighted her career in the State Department, her contribution to Puerto Rico's political progress, her poetry and other literary work, and her political activity with the NWP.
Also on April 4th, the New York Herald Tribune published the most intimate and informed obituary, which was written by one of Lee's friends who worked for the newspaper. It was that day's lead obituary, but unlike the obituaries in the Post and Times, it provided a vivid picture of Lee as a poet, opening with an account of her literary beginnings:
The rest of this article reviewed Lee's life and multi-faceted career, with emphasis on her work for the NWP during the early years of the Depression, when she championed the policy of non-discrimination against women workers.
Two days after her death, the executive secretary of the Inter-American Commission of Women, Esther de Calvo, sent a condolence letter to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, in which she told him:
Soon after Lee passed away, a close friend and colleague of hers, poet Ernest Kroll, who was a Japanese affairs specialist in the State Department during her tenure there, wrote a eulogy titled "Muna Lee (1895–1965)," which celebrates her remarkable vitality:
Muna Lee's enduring contributions to American literature and society have sadly been forgotten, obscured by the dust cloud made by the generations of writers and social activists who followed in her footsteps. Her belief in a common New World character has been eclipsed by increasing criticism of its assumptions. Her glory days were of another time (like the taste for her love songs), but not so distant from the turn of the present century. She left us a compelling body of widely varied writing replete with lyricism, brilliance, and progressive ideas. Moreover, she expanded the bounds of our own national literature, as part of her legacy, by rendering in English the voices of more than sixty different poets from Latin America, many of whom had not been known in the North until she gave them to us. In order for us to fully appreciate our literary and social traditions, especially with regard to poetry and women's rights, we must come to terms with what she — and other forgotten leaders like her — did to advance them; for she was one of the great Pan-American pioneers, who dedicated her life to finding our common ground with our sister republics, and bringing the diverse peoples of the Americas together, through literature, social change, and cultural relations.
Ultimately, the extraordinary Muna Lee was not Mississippian, Oklahoman, or Puerto Rican, not simply North or South American, Latin or Anglo American, but uniquely American in the original sense of the word, which implies the Pan-Americanism that defined her.