Jerome David Salinger was born on January 1, 1919, in New York City, the second child of Sol and Miriam Jillich Salinger. His father, of European Jewish ancestry, became very successful during the 1930s importing hams and cheeses from Europe. Salinger’s mother, of Scottish descent, may have been an actress and may have influenced her son who, in his youth, flirted with the idea of acting as well as writing for the stage and films. From 1934 to 1936, Salinger attended Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania, a half-hour from Philadelphia in the exclusive “Main Line” suburbs, where he first began writing at the age of fifteen.
Salinger entered New York University in 1936 but quickly dropped out. During 1937 and 1938, his father sent him to Poland and Austria to become acquainted with the sources of his import food business, perhaps in the hope of interesting his son in becoming his business successor. But Salinger decided early on that he wanted only to be a writer.
After his European travels, Salinger returned home and tried schooling one more time, attending Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. This small liberal arts college, populated mostly by middle-class Pennsylvania students, must have seemed very distant from the sophisticated, wealthy Park Avenue, New York culture that surrounded Salinger in his adolescent years. Although he wrote nine articles, including theater reviews, for the Ursinus student paper in the one semester he was there, as in all his school experiences Salinger felt alienated, unhappy, and disdainful of the process and rituals of formal education. He quit Ursinus and returned to New York. There, in 1940, he took a night class at Columbia University from Whit Burnett, a famous editor and owner of Story magazine. Salinger began writing stories targeted for sale to the popular mass market magazines of the era and published his first one in Story in 1940.
During World War II, from 1942 to 1945, Salinger served in the U.S. Army, training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and serving on the front in Europe. As a member of the Counter Intelligence Corps assigned to the 12th Infantry Regiment, Fourth Division in Europe, he landed on Utah Beach, Normandy, on June 6, 1944: D-day. Salinger observed the ferocious fighting on the Normandy beaches and went on to see the liberation of Paris, where he met Ernest Hemingway, who was serving as a war correspondent. Salinger again saw tremendous slaughter and casualties when he participated in the fight to liberate Luxembourg, known as the Battle of the Bulge. His army job was to interrogate prisoners of war, gather intelligence, and write reports about his findings. He continued these duties even after the Nazis surrendered, a particularly unenviable task for a half-Jewish American, considering the profound horror of the Nazi attempt to exterminate European Jewry.
The trauma of these wartime experiences seems to underlie the transformation of Salinger’s fiction that occurred in the late 1940s. His art reflects the wartime era with poignant sensibility, particularly the group of stories published in the New Yorker beginning January 31, 1948, with “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” an ironic title for a story that ends with a character committing suicide. This and other serious stories about the World War II era launched Salinger on a prominent and enormously successful career. During the 1950s and 1960s, he was one of the most widely discussed and influential American literary personages. But as his celebrity grew, he progressively shrank from the limelight.
His fiction-published infrequently and almost exclusively in the New Yorker-met with mixed, sometimes hostile, critical reception, and all of it explored a single fictional family, the Glass family.
Growing implacably hostile to the New York literary and publishing world, Salinger moved to the small New Hampshire village of Cornish in 1953. In 1955 he married Claire Douglas. The Salingers had a daughter, Margaret Ann, born December 10, 1955, and a son, Matthew, born February 13, 1960.