Born Shirley Hardie Jackson in San Francisco, California, to Leslie and Geraldine Jackson, Shirley and her family lived in the community of Burlingame, California, an affluent middle-class suburb that would feature in Shirley's first novel The Road Through the Wall. The Jackson family then relocated to Rochester, New York, where Shirley attended Brighton High School and graduated in 1934. For college, she first attended the University of Rochester, before graduating with a BA from Syracuse University in 1940.
While a student at Syracuse, Shirley became involved with the campus literary magazine, through which she met future husband Stanley Edgar Hyman, who would become a noted literary critic. For Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Harcraft's Twentieth Century Authors (1954), she wrote:
I very much dislike writing about myself or my work, and when pressed for autobiographical material can only give a bare chronological outline which contains, naturally, no pertinent facts. I was born in San Francisco in 1919 and spent most of my early life in California. I was married in 1940 to Stanley Edgar Hyman, critic and numismatist, and we live in Vermont, in a quiet rural community with fine scenery and comfortably far away from city life. Our major exports are books and children, both of which we produce in abundance. The children are Laurence, Joanne, Sarah and Barry: my books include three novels, The Road Through The Wall, Hangsaman, The Bird's Nest and a collection of short stories, The Lottery. Life Among the Savages is a disrespectful memoir of my children.