This article contributes to the formulation of an aesthetics of the so-called middlebrow novel during the early Cold War years, when the term middlebrow was in its widest circulation. It argues that in their work middlebrow authors frequently attempt to adapt the Enlightenment paradigm of the bildungsroman, or novel of aesthetic education, in order to meet the challenges of modernity; at the same time they critique a then-hegemonic version of modernism that argued that the nature of twentieth-century society required writers to make a radical break with conventional literary aesthetics. Uncoupling the term middlebrow from its familiar location within debates concerning cultural capital, “Rebuilding Bildung” locates the middlebrow at the heart of a widespread mid-century debate concerning the value of aesthetic experience. In particular, this article argues that middlebrow authors generate in their work a nonsubversive irony through free indirect discourse and the tentative deployment of conventional generic tropes. This irony allowed middlebrow authors to critique without undermining the central contention of the bildungsroman: that aesthetic pleasure might allow the individual to come to terms with his or her social world. The essay examines a number of novels, including Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny (1951), James Michener's Hawaii (1959), Laura Z. Hobson's Gentleman's Agreement (1947), and Robert Ruark's Poor No More (1959). It focuses primarily on Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt (1952), a novel that attempts to move the “lesbian pulp” genre into specifically middlebrow territory and in doing so brings the stakes of a middlebrow aesthetic project into an especially sharp focus.

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