BOULDER, COLO. — `IF Hollywood wanted to capture the emotional center of Western history, its movies would be about real estate. John Wayne would have been neither a gunfighter nor a sheriff, but a surveyor, speculator, or claims lawyer.'' So writes Patricia Nelson Limerick in her historical text ``Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West'' (Norton, 1987). Perceptive, provocative, humorous, the passage typifies the best-known of the revisionist Western historians. A prolific writer, Dr. Limerick cranks out numerous papers and addresses, teaches lively undergraduate courses and graduate seminars at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and writes a regular column for USA Today. Her third book is on the way.
She finds the term ``frontier'' nationalistic and often racist - ``the area where white people got scarce or got scared.'' But the idea, she adds, is not to make white people look bad but ``simply to make it clear that in Western American history, heroism and villainy, virtue and vice, nobility and shoddiness appear in roughly the same proportions as they appear in any other subject of human history.''
Such talk riles some Westerners. ``Why can't the revisionists simply leave our myths alone?'' grumbled one Arizona columnist. ``Westerners - and most other Americans, for that matter - are quite content with our storied past, even if it tends to fib a bit.''
Limerick replies that ``acknowledging the moral complexity of Western history does not require us to surrender the mythic power traditionally associated with the region's story.'' On the contrary, she asserts, ``moral complexity provides the base for parables and tales of greater and deeper meaning. Myths resting on tragedy and on unforeseen consequences, the ancient Greeks certainly knew, have far more power than stories of simple triumphs and victories.''