Idora McClellan Moore
Idora McClellan Moore (1843-1929) was a founding member of the Alabama Writers’ Conclave; she published some 275 stories under the pseudonym Betsy Hamilton. Known as “dialect” stories for their emphasis on the vernacular language of their subjects, most of the tales focus on poor whites in a fictional backwoods settlement in Talladega County, with a few sketches centering on slaves and freed blacks. Although nationally known in her time, her work is now found only in two out-of-print, self-published collections and in newspaper and library archives.
Idora McClellan was born at Idlewild, her family’s plantation near Talladega, Talladega County, on October 31, 1843, to Gen. William Blount McClellan and Martha Roby Thompson McClellan. The 11th of 16 children, she attended school in Talladega and Summerfield. In 1866, she married Albert White Plowman, a Talladega lawyer who suffered from arthritis. To improve his health and save money, the couple spent two years at Riddle’s Mill, a community centered on a granary operation whose mineral springs were popular with the infirm. While there, Moore got to know the people who lived in the nearly inaccessible rugged hills of Clay and Randolph counties and who stopped at Riddle’s Mill while travelling to and from Talladega and while waiting for their corn and wheat to be ground. In 1873, she wrote her first story, “Betsy’s First Trip to Town,” in the form of a rural young woman’s letter to her cousin; it was published in 1873 in the Talladega-News Reporter. The story was republished several times, including in the New York Sun. This sketch, like the ones she wrote later, was “signed” by Betsy Hamilton, and Moore was not listed as the author.
Albert Plowman died in 1878, and Moore spent two years in Texas with her sister Laura. She returned to Alabama in 1880 to teach in Blue Eye, a community near Lincoln, Talladega County. She began publishing sketches in The Sunny South, a weekly literary newspaper published in Atlanta, in 1881, with Betsy Hamilton, protagonist of her first published work, as the centerpiece. That same year, she left teaching to write full time; she also began performing some her sketches. She did not try to hide her identity as the author, although she always signed the sketches as Betsy Hamilton. Eventually, through her performances, she became so identified with her main character that fans and friends alike called her “Aunt Betsy” or “Mrs. Hamilton.” Written in the form of letters, like the first sketch, from Betsy Hamilton to her cousin, Saleny Sidebottom, and her sister, Flurridy Tennysy, the sketches trace Betsy’s life from courtship through marriage, childbirth, and widowhood in a series called the Familiar Letters. Embedded in Betsy’s story is the everyday life of her isolated rural community—friendships and feuds, gossip, illness and death, requited and unrequited love, weddings, frolics, and family matters. The content and tone of the letters belong to the tradition known as Old Southwest humor, although Moore has been classified as a local color writer. She used typical Old Southwest humor topics and settings (usually involving rural people and elaborate and occasionally violent practical jokes or actions) but tackled them from a woman’s perspective without losing the sharp edge of the Old Southwest masculine humor. One of the unusual aspects of Moore’s handling of the Old Southwest tradition is that she did not use the outside narrator typical of the genre. Betsy was both the central character and the narrator.
Betsy’s weekly letters were very popular and contributed to a rapid rise in The Sunny South’s circulation. Their general tone was friendly and funny. Readers, who were largely urban, could identify with the characters—the nosy gossip, the flighty schoolgirl, the prankster boys, the secret lovers, the new father—while enjoying the novelty of an unfamiliar and isolated, rural life. Moore’s aims were to entertain readers and to preserve the dialect and way of life of this vanishing population, which was becoming less isolated and was changing even as she wrote about it. In one story, Betsy’s father, Pap, puts a stop to thefts from his watermelon patch by playing a trick on the thieves. He cuts a hole in the biggest, juiciest melon and fills it with ipecac, a medicine that makes the person who takes it sick to the stomach. Hiding, he watches the boys who have been stealing from him eat the irresistibly large watermelon and then get sick from it. He then chases them off the patch, threatening them with worse consequences if they come back.
Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Uncle Remus stories, convinced Henry Grady, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, to hire Moore, and her weekly column usually appeared alongside Uncle Remus and Bill Arp (pseudonym of Major Charles Henry Smith). She published several sketches in the Constitution regularly in 1884 and 1885, and during this period, her works began to take on an increasingly sentimental and more general tone. Moore continued performing her sketches in costume as Betsy Hamilton and performed to large, sellout crowds at colleges, libraries, church halls, and Chautauquas (adult education performances popular at the turn of the twentieth century) throughout the South and in the Midwest and North and often headlined fundraisers for charities. During a performance in Auburn, Lee County, she met Martin Van Buren Moore, a writer and agricultural editor of the Atlanta Constitution; the couple married in 1892 and lived at his home in Auburn. By then, Moore was publishing only sporadically and maintained a busy schedule of stage performances.
In 1900, she returned to Talladega after her husband died. In 1915 and 1916, she published two series of sentimental sketches—”The Hill Country and Backwoods People of the South” and “The Old-Time Plantation Negroes”—in the Atlanta Constitution that recalled the “good old days” of her youth and young adulthood. The sketches featuring African Americans, along with a few others like it that she had published in the Sunny South in 1881, were taken directly from Moore’s experiences on her father’s plantation and present a romanticized version of slave life. In 1923, she became a founding member of the Alabama Writers’ Conclave, the oldest continuing writers’ organization in the United States, and was a featured speaker at the Conclave’s first meeting, which was held at Alabama College (now the University of Montevallo).
Unable to find a publisher for her collected works, even during the height of her popularity, Moore finally self-published Betsy Hamilton: Southern Character Sketches in 1921, long after public interest in dialect and local color stories had passed; her stepdaughter published a revised edition in 1937. Nether edition includes any of Moore’s best work, the Familiar Letters sketches, and neither was a commercial or critical success. Despite wild popularity during her lifetime, her writing is now little known. Moore continued performing her Betsy Hamilton sketches well into her old age, giving her last performance at age 85. She died on February 26, 1929, and was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Talladega.
Selected Works by Idora McClellan Moore
“Familiar Letters” (1881-1885)
“The Big Meetin’ at Swingin’ Limb” (1884)
“Betsy Hamilton’s Letters” (1884)
“A Romance of Owl Hollow—A Continued Story in Dialect of Love and Humor” (1884-85)
“A Wartime Commencement in Dixie” (1895)
“Betsy Hamilton” (1895)
“A Georgia Wedding” (1895)
“Plan for Cotton Factory Building in Small Towns” (1902)
“Betsy Hamilton. Part I. The Hill Country and Backwoods People of the South” (1915-16)
“Betsy Hamilton. Part II. The Old-Time Plantation Negroes” (1916)
Betsy Hamilton: Southern Character Sketches (1921)
Southern Character Sketches (1937)
McCain, Louise Burke. “Idora McClellan Moore: A Biographical Sketch Including Selections of Her Writings.” Master’s thesis, Alabama Polytechnic Institute, 1934.
McKee, Kathryn. “The Forgotten World of Idora McClellan Moore’s ‘Betsy Hamilton’ Letters.” Studies in American Humor 3, no. 10 (2003): 65-72.
—. “Writing in a Different Direction: Women Authors and the Tradition of Southwestern Humor, 1875-1910.” Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1996.
Waller, Gail. “Idora McClellan Plowman Moore’s ‘Betsy Hamilton’ in an Alabama Backwoods Settlement.” Master’s thesis, Auburn University at Montgomery, 2008.
Williams, Benjamin B. “‘Betsy Hamilton’: Alabama’s Local Colorist.” Alabama Historical Quarterly 26 (Summer 1964): 235-39.