Robert D. Richardson, Jr., has written a number of important intellectual biographies, including Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, which was first published more than twenty years ago.
By the 1980s, Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862) had become thoroughly woven into the fabric of American culture - so much so that his power and originality had become virtually invisible. His ideas on individual freedom, nonviolent protest, protecting the environment, and maintaining an inner life that makes us more than "Homo Economicus" seemed almost cliched by the 1980s. In some ways, Thoreau and his work had become somewhat like another cultural giant - Ludwig van Beethoven, whose Fifth Symphony seems cliched by the 217th time that it is heard.
Robert Richardson performed in his book the essential service of showing just how original Thoreau's ideas - or at least the syntheses of ideas accomplished by Thoreau - were. Richardson did this by placing Thoreau carefully into his historic context - and by following closely the intellectual journey that Thoreau began when he began keeping a journal at the age of 20 in 1837. That journal contains Thoreau's reactions to his vast and highly varied reading, as well as his observations of nature.
Thoreau was a giant of American culture - in some ways, the patron saint of the American left. It is Thoreau - not Marx or others - who reverberates in current progressive views on freedom, protest, economics, and the ecology. Richardson, who later wrote an important biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson, engagingly and skillfully showed how someone in early nineteenth century rural Massachusetts could come to these ideas - and then express them in such a powerful and lasting way.