McAlmon was born in Clifton, Kansas, the youngest of ten children of an itinerant Presbyterian minister.
McAlmon was admitted to the University of Minnesota in 1916, but only spent one semester there before enlisting in the United States Army Air Corps in 1918. At the conclusion of World War I, he returned to university (1917-1920), this time at the University of Southern California. He attended classes intermittently until 1920, when he moved to Chicago and then New York City, where he worked as a nude model at art school. Once in New York, he collaborated with William Carlos Williams on the Contact Review, which did not last for long, but published poetry by Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, H. D., Hilda Doolittle, Kay Boyle and Marsden Hartley. The next year, he moved to Paris after marrying the wealthy and lesbian English writer Annie Winifred Ellerman, better known as Bryher. McAlmon typed and edited the handwritten manuscript of Ulysses by James Joyce, with whom he had a friendship.
McAlmon became a prolific writer after the move, with many of his stories and poems based on his experiences as a youth in South Dakota.
Contact editions 
Having published his book of short stories A Hasty Bunch with James Joyce's printer Maurice Darantière in Dijon in 1922, he founded the Contact Publishing Company in 1923 using his father-in-law's money. Lasting until 1929 the Contact Editions brought out books by Bryher (Two Selves), H. D.'s Palimpsest, Mina Loy's Lunar Baedecker, Ernest Hemingway's first book Three Stories & Ten Poems (1923), poems by Marsden Hartley, William Carlos Williams (Spring and All, 1923), Emanuel Carnevali's only book during his lifetime (The Hurried Man), prose by Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein (The Making of Americans, 1925), Mary Butts (Ashe of Rings), John Herrmann (What Happens), Edwin Lanham (Sailors Don't Care), Robert Coates (The Eater of Darkness), Texas schoolteacher Gertrude Beasley's My First Thirty Years and Saikaku Ihara's Quaint Tales of Samurais. McAlmon paid for the publication of The Ladies Almanack by Djuna Barnes.
One of McAlmon's most important and best-received works is Village: As It Happened Through a Fifteen Year Period (1924) which presents a bleak portrait of an American town. The book shows his love for Eugene Vidal (Eugene Collins in the book), Gore Vidal's father, with whom he grew up in Madison, South Dakota, which is documented in Gore Vidal's mid-90s memoir, Palimpsest.
Other works include the short story collection A Companion Volume (1923), the autobiographical novel Post-Adolescence (1923), Distinguished Air (Grim Fairy Tales) (1925), the poetry collections The Portrait of a Generation (1926) and Not Alone Lost (1937), the 1,200 line epic poem North America, Continent of Conjecture (1929), and his memoir Being Geniuses Together: An Autobiography (1938).
McAlmon returned to the United States in 1940, and died at Desert Hot Springs, California almost unknown in his native country sixteen years later. In the 1990s, Edward Lorusso brought out three volumes of McAlmon's fiction (many were first American publications), Village (1924, 1990), Post-Adolescence (1923, 1991), and Miss Knight and Others (1992), all through University of New Mexico Press.
McAlmon is heavily featured in the book Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco about the golden age of Paris in the 1920s when writers and artists flocked to the city.
- Explorations. Egoist Press, London 1921. Poetry
- A Hasty Bunch. n.p., n.d. Printed by Maurice Darantière in Lyon in 1922. Short stories
- A Companion Volume. Contact, Paris 1923. Short stories
- Post-Adolescence. Contact, Paris 1923. Short stories
- Village: As It Happened Through a Fifteen Year Period. Contact, Paris 1924. Novel
- Distinguished Air: Grim Fairy Tales Contact, Paris 1925 [Photo-reprinted as There Was a Rustle of Black Silk Stockings. 1963]
- The Portrait of a Generation. Contact, Paris 1925. Poetry
- North America, Continent of Conjecture. Contact, Paris 1929. Poetry
- The Infinite Huntress and Other Stories. Black Sun Press, Paris 1932
- Not Alone Lost. New Directions, Norfolk, CT, 1937. Poetry
- Being Geniuses Together. Secker & Warburg, London 1938. Memoir (his one popular book)
- Robert E. Knoll: McAlmon and the Lost Generation. A Self Portrait. University of Nebraska, Lincoln 1962.
- Being Geniuses Together. Doubleday, New York 1968 (revised with supplementary chapters by Kay Boyle)
- Miss Knight and Others. University of New Mexico Press, 1992
- Sanford J. Smoller (1975). Adrift Among Geniuses: Robert McAlmon, Writer and Publisher of the Twenties. Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 978-0-271-01173-8. The only biography of the author.
- Humphrey Carpenter (1987). Geniuses Together: American Writers in Paris in the 1920s. Unwin Hyman. ISBN 0-04-440331-3. Contains an insightful account of McAlmon's life.
- Mellow, James R. (July 22, 1990). "Talent and All the Right Connections". New York Times. Retrieved August 30, 2012. "Village: As It Happened Through a Fifteen Year Period. By Robert McAlmon. Edited by Edward N. S. Lorusso."