Jerome David Salinger was born on New Year's Day 1919 in New York City. His father, Sol Salinger, was Jewish and an importer of kosher cheese and meats. His mother, Marie Jillich, was Scotch-Irish, and changed her name to Miriam before her marriage in order to appease her future in-laws. J.D. Salinger (as he eventually called himself) had a sister named Doris who was about eight years older.
When J.D. was thirteen years old, the Salingers sent their son to the McBurney School, a boys' preparatory academy on New York City's Upper West Side, which was very similar to the types of schools Holden Caulfield ended up getting expelled from. (McBurney showed up later in Salinger's fiction: the Pencey Prep fencing team is on its way to a meet at McBurney when Holden loses all their gear on the subway.) Salinger wrote for the school paper and was active in McBurney's student theater program—a surprising choice for someone who would studiously avoid the spotlight in his adult years.
After two years at McBurney he transferred to Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania. Salinger used Valley Forge as the model for Pencey in The Catcher in the Rye, from the layout of the boys' dorms to the names of the students (there actually was a boy named Ackley at Valley Forge while Salinger attended, though fellow alumni have said that he was a very pleasant person and not, as Holden describes his fictional counterpart, "sort of a nasty guy.")
After Salinger graduated from Valley Forge in 1936, he returned to Manhattan to enroll in New York University. He dropped out at the end of his freshman year and, at his father's suggestion, took a job at a meatpacking company in Vienna, Austria, to learn more about the business. He moved to Vienna in the fall of 1937, just as the Nazis were coming to power in Europe. With war seeming all but inevitable, Salinger left Austria just a few months later, in February, and returned to the U.S. He got out just in time; the Nazis took over Austria on 12 March 1938.
Salinger took a few other stabs at university life, but he never received a degree. He spent a single semester at Pennsylvania's Ursinus College. Then, in 1939, he enrolled in a creative writing course at Columbia University. The instructor was Whit Burnett, the editor of a popular and influential literary journal called Story. Burnett recognized talent in Salinger's class work and encouraged him to submit to the magazine. The March/April 1940 issue of Story carried a piece called "The Young Folks." It was J.D. Salinger's first published work.
Salinger soon became more serious about his writing career. Like nearly all aspiring writers, he struggled at first. He took a job on a cruise ship in 1941 to pay the bills while he worked on his fiction. The Holy Grail for fiction writers then (and now) was The New Yorker, a magazine whose strict acceptance standards for stories were legendary. Salinger submitted story after story to the magazine, to no avail. Finally, in December 1941, the magazine informed Salinger that it wanted to publish his story "Slight Rebellion Off Madison." The story featured a character named Holden Caulfield, who was nervous about the upcoming war. It turned out that Holden was right—the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The next day, the U.S. declared war on Japan. To Salinger's chagrin, The New Yorker decided to hold off on publishing the story for fear that its themes were inappropriate for a country at war. "Rebellion" did not run in the magazine until 1946.