When Ishi, "the last wild Indian," came out of hiding in August of 1911, he was quickly whisked away by train to San Francisco to meet Alfred Kroeber, one of the fathers of American anthropology. When Kroeber and Ishi came face to face, it was a momentous event, not only for each man, but for the cultures they represented. Each stood on the brink: one culture was in danger of losing something vital while the other was in danger of disappearing altogether.
Ishi was a survivor, and viewed the bright lights of the big city with a mixture of awe and bemusement. What surprised everyone is how handily he adapted himself to the modern city while maintaining his sense of self and his culture. He and his people had ingeniously used everything they could get their hands on from whites to survive in hiding, and now Ishi was doing the same in San Francisco. The wild man was in fact doubly civilizedhe had his own culture, and he opened himself up to that of modern America. Kroeber was professionally trained to document Ishi's culture, his civilization. What he didn't count on was how deeply working with the man would lead him to question his own profession and his civilizationhow it would rekindle a wildness of his own.
Though Ishi's story has been told before in film and fiction, Wild Men is the first book to focus on the depth of Ishi and Kroeber's friendship and to explore what their intertwined stories tell us about Indian survival in modern America and about America's fascination with the wild even as it was becoming ever-more urban and modern. Wild Men is about two individuals and two worlds intimately brought together in ways that turned out to be at once inspiring and tragic. Each man stood looking at the other from the opposite edge of a chasm: they reached out in the hope of keeping the other from falling in.