11/11/2010 02:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bush and Memoirs

Former President Bush has written his recollections and, in the short time since they were selectively leaked, previewed and published two days ago, there have been conflicting accounts of what, exactly, they are. As someone who has spent a lifetime writing and teaching biography I hope I may be permitted an opinion.

For what it's worth, let me try and clarify the distinctions between the various genres of autobiography.

First, autobiography is a generic term -- like "history." It denotes the account of a life or part of a life, by the person who has lived it. As a term it helps us in drawing up catalogues for libraries and bookstores and archives. In itself, however, it gives no indication as to the form chosen by the author -- from letters and diaries to long-winded self-portraiture.

The broad constituent areas of genre we need to concern ourselves with in examining President George W. Bush's new book are therefore three. Is it an autobiography? Is it a person's memoirs? Or is it a memoir?

As I've explained in How To Do Biography: A Primer (Harvard, 2008), an autobiography is quite distinct from a person's memoirs. Autobiography's great saint was actually a saint: St Augustine, who wrote his own life-story as a confession or extended apologia to God. It was characterized by often brutal self-examination and honesty -- setting an example for the rest of time. With Jean Jacques Rousseau's Confessions the genre became, I wrote,

"a rigorous, bracing, self-analytical investigation: a forensic journey into the past, in a determination to locate and share, openly, the absolute truth about oneself, so that by confronting it with humility, honesty, courage and humanity, one might free oneself of the endless filters and extirpations of religion."

The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, By Himself, published in 1845, is another example I cited -- "passionate, demanding, denunciatory, self-analytical: 'autobiographies' now differed from people's 'memoirs,' as their authors challenged themselves and the world to be honest about their own lives."

Clearly, in this sense, George Bush's new book, Decision Points, is not "an autobiography" in the classical sense. There is no attempt to look back at his life and to re-examine it in any forensic, rigorous or self-critical manner -- nor, to his credit, does he claim to have done so. Nor has he not sought to take a certain event or phase or slice of his life to chronicle and re-examine, as in a memoir -- a confessional genre that has achieved extraordinary popularity in recent years.

Decision Points, as a selective account of his whole life, therefore falls into the category of "memoirs" -- a very old, and from a literary and historical point of view, perfectly respectable genre that goes back more than two thousand years to the Greeks.

I'd like to quote again from my little book on biography. "One of the first writers in this genre," I wrote,

"was the Greek general Xenophon, who had already written a superb biography of Cyrus the Younger, but had his own personal story to tell. In 401 B.C. he had marched with Cyrus in the grand campaign to seize the throne of Persia, and had then helped lead the Retreat of the Ten Thousand when Cyrus failed and was killed. Xenophon's memoirs, Anabasis or The Persian Expedition, written about forty years later, and in the third person, became a classic of classical times. Written circa 370 B.C. it still has the ring of lived experience in the face of death and the breakdown of an army's morale:

"Some people brought charges against Xenophon, alleging that they had been beaten by him and making the basis of their accusations that he had behaved in an overbearing manner. Xenophon asked the man who had spoken first to say where the incident had taken place. 'It happened,' he said, 'in the place where we were dying of cold and where there was all that snow.'

'Well,' said Xenophon, 'when the weather was like you say it was, when our food was giving out and we had not even a smell of wine, when a lot of us were sinking under all our hardships and the enemy were following us up behind, if I really acted in an overbearing way, then I admit that I must have a more overbearing character than the donkey has; and they say that donkeys are so overbearing that they never get tired. [...] But you all ought to hear what actually happened. It is worth listening to. A man was being left behind, because he could no longer go on marching. All I knew of the man was that he was one of us. I compelled you to carry him so that his life might be saved. [...] And did I not then come up to you again with the rearguard and find you digging a hole in order to bury the man? I stood by you, did I not, and commended you for it? Then, when we were standing by, the man drew in his leg and the people shouted that he was alive; but you said, 'He can be as much alive as he likes, I am not going to carry him.' It was at this point that I struck you, and you are quite right about that. It was because I had the impression that you looked as if though you knew that the man was alive.'

"'What about it?' the man replied. 'He died all the same, did he not, after I had shown him to you?'

"'No doubt we shall all die,' said Xenophon. 'Is that any reason why we should all be buried alive?'

"Then they all shouted the man down, saying that Xenophon had not beaten him half enough."

I also quoted Martin Luther's memoirs, edited by Michelet in the nineteenth century, as well as Thomas Jefferson's memories of his ringside seat during the French Revolution, with its excoriating account of the conduct of Marie Antoinette:

"a Queen of absolute sway over his weak mind, and timid virtue; and of a character the reverse of his [Louis XVI] in all points. This angel, as gaudily painted in the rhapsodies of the Rhetor Burke, with some smartness of fancy, but no sound sense was proud, disdainful of restraint, indignant at all obstacles to her will, eager in the pursuit of pleasure, and firm enough to hold to her desires, or perish in their wreck. Her inordinate gambling and dissipations, with those of the Count d'Artois and others of her clique, had been a sensible item in the exhaustion of the treasury, which called into action the reforming hand of the nation; and her opposition to it her inflexible perverseness, and dauntless spirit, led herself to the Guillotine, & drew the king on with her, and plunged the world into crimes & calamities which will forever stain the pages of modern history. I have ever believed that had there been no queen, there would have been no revolution."

"Was Jefferson fair to Marie-Antoinette?" I asked (rhetorically). "At all events he was there, in Paris and Versailles, at the time. The memoirs of warriors, diplomats, travelers, and adventurers were unashamedly subjective -- an antidote to the history written by historians."

In this light there can be no doubt that former President Bush has written his presidential self-portrait as his memoirs -- not as an "autobiography." He has history on his side in that endeavor -- biographical and literary history, with many wonderful precedents, including Thomas Jefferson.

Whether former President Bush has history on his side in the historical account he gives of his own presidency, however, is another matter entirely. And in the coming weeks, now that I have his memoirs, Decision Points, at hand, I will do my best to put his subjective recollections into the larger context of history: what we know to have taken place, rather than what he wishes to recall. I will also attempt to set his self-portrait as a decision-maker against my own study of great leadership, as presented in my new book, American Caesars: Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush (Yale, 2010), a book based on the famous history of ancient Rome, The Twelve Caesars, by Suetonius. It will, I think, be an interesting comparison.

Nigel Hamilton, now an American citizen, was the first Professor of Biography in Great Britain, and is currently Senior Fellow in the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, UMass Boston. He was recently elected President of Biographers International Organization (BIO).