THE UNHAPPINESS of the Alcott family -- the hard-pressed ensemble of father, mother and four daughters that gave rise to the intrepid March family of America's fictional family valentine, Little Women -- can be laid to the mismatched parents. These were Bronson Alcott, an indefatigable dreamer and impractical reformer who conceived of his errand in life as a "divine mission for human culture" and his shrill, agressive wife, Abby May Alcott, the real-life termagant who was transformed into the compassionate and long-suffering Marmee, the ideal mother, of her daughter Louisa May's best-selling novel.

The errantic, impecunious life of the Alcotts -- as Madelon Bedell makes clear in this strikingly written and insightfull group-biography -- is of some significance in American social and cultural history, illustrating, as it does, the contradictions of mid-19th-century social philosphies: the conflicts between the individual and society, between family loyalties and the utopian dreams of communal life that negated those loyalties. Abby May Alcott, a member of the wealthy, reformist-minded May family, was a woman given to practical measures, turning her abrasive energy and sharp tongue to such worthy causes as education, fair employment for the poor Boston Irish immigrants (whose religion she detested) and woman's suffrage (though her career was to be, largely, that of a martyred housewife, doting mother and staunch supporter of her husband's ever-failing missions). But, as Bedell notes, Abby May's good intentions were often dissipated by more pressing concerns: "What she lacked was the staying power for any cause beyond her own family."

Such self-sacrifice was not a noticeable ingredient in Bronson Alcott's character; his idealism, his failures, his depressions and self-pity were costly to his family and friends. Brave to a fault on educational issues, he gave the young pupils of his Temple School in Boston a primitive form of sex education in response to questions arising from Biblical stories. Wealthy Bostonians withdrew their children from the school; newspapers denounced him as "either insane or half-witted." He was threatened with mob action. Next, he have the lie to Boston's claim as a center for anti-slavery sentiment; he enrolled a black girl in his decimated private classes, then refused to dismiss her, thereby insuring the end of his financial support. He never counted the cost of his principled actions.

About other concerns, he was apt to be monstrously selfish. Ralph Waldo Emerson offered to pay for the discouraged philosopher-educator's trip to England in 1842, in the hope that Alcott might be consoled by some wealthy diciples of his educational methods, but even Emerson was slightly amazed by the alacrity with which Alcott took up the proposal. Alcott, Emerson noted in his journal, was "quite ready at any moment to abandon his present residence & employment, his country, nay, his wife & children, on very short notice, to put any dream into practice." The hardpressed Abby May and the children remained behind. For much of their lives -- until Louisa became a celebrated author -- they were to live at subsistence level on handouts from sponsors like Emerson or Abby's increasingly begrudging relatives, the Mays.

There is a good deal of American social history in this generally sparkling biography. Bedell deftly sketches in the political and philosophical issues that aroused the intellectuals of Concord and Boston. She places Bronson Alcott at the center of her book and of his social milieu, creating a viable character rather than a convenient caricature of the bumbling intellectual and reformer. She does not blink at Alcott's highly visible flaws; his high-handedness, his unwillingness to countenance any opinions other than his own, his irresponsiblility. "There was always to be a bit of the charlatan about Bronson Alcott." she also remarks. She even manages to stir up some sympathy for the overburdened and occasionally hysterical Abby May Alcott. (Nathaniel Hawthorne, a Concord neighbor and an extremely taciturn man, was moved to tell Alcott that it "was not possible to live on amicable terms with Mrs. Alcott," by way of explaining the coolness that had developed between the two families. Alcott, Hawthorne reported, took it all "like a saint.")

But this first volume of a two-part biography (the second will cover the lives and careers of the children; Louisa May and her sisters, Anna, Elizabeth and May Alcott) is not a chronicle of saints and sinners but a narrative of vivid and compromised individuals. Bedell closes this volume at a thoroughly appropriate point when Alcott, at age 50, having suffered the defeats of the spirit and the trails of the flesh (including a serious bout with smallpox) has entered into a mild infatuation with one of his young admirers (ednah Dow Littlehale, who, ironically, was to become the biographer of his daughter, Louisa May) and stepped out into one of his more heroic (if still unsuccessful) public actions -- the attempt to rescue the runaway slave, Anthony Burns, who, under the hated Fugitive Slave Law, is being remanded by the Boston authorities to his southern owner.

All in all, The Alcotts is a dramatic story, refreshingly and briskly told, and a genuine addition to our understanding of America at the crossroads of its national life.