Father didn't know best; Life at the Alcotts' wasn't at all like 'Little Women'; The Alcotts: Biography of a Farmily, by Madelon Bedell. New York: Clarkson N. Potter. $15.95.

In "Little Women" Louisa May Alcott presented an ideal of American family life that has been etched in the minds of the thousands who have read it since its publication in 1867. Under one cozy roof dwell a saintly father, warm-hearted mother, and four highly individualistic daughters. As most readers know, Louisa was really writing about her own family, with herself squarely in the middle as the headstrong tomboy called Jo.

But, as this perceptive biography reveals, the similarities between the beloved March family and the real-life Alcotts existed only in part. Whereas the March girls knew the stability of one home and a conventional existence, the four Alcott girls knew an endless change of living quarters, experimental life styles, and financial worry. The father in "Little Women" is remote, figuring in his family's life as a background presence of steadiness and wisdom. Nowhere in the story is there the enigmatic, philosophizing bundle of grand motives and less grand contradictions that was Bronson Alcott.

"The Alcotts" is a portrait of a marriage, the mingling of two radically diverse individuals, Bronson and Abby Alcott. Their lives spanned most of the 19th century, lives that touched -- and in some cases helped form -- much of the fermenting thought of the age. Through painstaking research and an obvious affection for her subjects, the author has brought them vividly to life.

Bronson Alcott, we learn, began his career as a peddler and ended it that way as well. At 17 he left his father's waning Connecticut farm and headed for Virginia, where he wandered the back country dispensing combs, needles, thimbles , and picture books. In his later years he headed west, this time selling ideas -- participatory lectures called "Conversations." In between the two ventures there were many others.

There was little in his background to indicate that he would be more than a peddler of combs. Rejecting the rude village school, he was taught to read by his mother, who traced letters with a stick on the sanded kitchen floor. By the time he reached 27 and met his future bride, he had started the first of his schools and was on the way to formulating an innovative approach to education that would win him both scorn and applause.

Abby was from origins as lofty as Bronson's were humble, her relatives distinguished Quincy's, Sewalls, Hancocks, and Mays. Yet, as the charming account of their courtship reveals, it was she who had to pursue Bronson, too bashful to admit he was smitten. During their long marriage he proved to be an idealistic dreamer preoccupied with his transcendentalist ideas; she proved to be the practical one, keeping her family from hunger and humiliation.

Like itinerant peddlers, the family was to move from place to place while Bronson began yet another venture in education or alternative life style. He started schools in Connecticut, Philadelphia, and Boston, each of which enjoyed initial success and then failure, as parents decided that his methods, which ignored the three R's and sought to develop the imagination and innate abilities of each child, were too radical. After the last school closed in Boston, Ralph Waldo Emerson -- always his friend, supporter, and benefactor -- encouraged him to settle in Concord and join the transcendentalist circle.

But in Concord he soon incurred more debt and frustration. After three years there the family was on the move again -- this time to establish a "New Eden" in America. They and a handful of supporters set up one of the many mid-19 th-century experiments in communal living, this one at a farm in central Massachusetts called Fruitlands, which turned out to be a short-lived disaster.

After a brief return to Concord, Abby took charge, moving the family into Boston, where she became the city's first female social worker, aiding the legions of immigrants pouring in. Bronson, too, put his social conscience into action, culminating in a glorious attempt to save a runaway slave from imprisonment. The book concludes -- it is the first of a two-part volume on the family -- with the middle-aged Bronson just beginning his celebrated "Conversations."

In addition to compelling portraits of the couple, the author gives us intriguing miniatures of the legendary individuals surrounding them -- Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Elizabeth Peabody. The sequel, expected to deal more extensively with the Alcott daughters, promises to round out this engrossing account of a remarkable, idealized American family, who, it turns out, was far more interesting than ideal.

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