The biographer of Jayne Mansfield turns to another American woman who never escaped her own history. Tracing the intellectual and emotional development of Louisa May Alcott, Saxton contends that she--like her mother Abba--was ""meant to be"" an ""impulsive, outgoing, opinionated, large-spirited woman."" Instead, under the thumb of father Bronson Alcott, the one-time Yankee peddlar and schoolmaster turned self-styled and self-absorbed philosopher, she struggled to become an ""ideal woman: patient, forgiving, soothing, undemanding, unselfish, and uncapricious."" In part she succeeded, becoming chief breadwinner and nursemaid for the whole family and wrecking her health as an army nurse; but the conflict between her reality and father's ideal left her withdrawn, sullen, lonely, and freighted with ""vaporous rage,"" ""tremendous guilt,"" and a streak of sometimes vindictive feminism. The distortion stunted her, Saxton argues, so that after writing Little Women (""a kind of expiation of her sins toward her parents"") at age 35, she stopped growing. That's why the last half of this book is so pedestrian; ali jaw-clenching work for pay makes Louisa a dull girl indeed. The livelier first half, mostly on Bronson, reveals the much romanticized Transcendental ""saint"" as an irresponsible, childishly demanding dictator. Saxton's vague, idiosyncratic documentation (""This chapter is the product of more than two years' thinking"") and exaggerated efforts to drum up a little interest (a ""long-term, secret infatuation with Henry Thoreau"") will make scholars shy of this otherwise interesting, readable, often insightful story of a woman deformed by her times--the first since Madeleine Stern's 1950 biography.