An American Tragedy begins in Kansas City on a summer evening sometime in the 1920s. Asa Griffiths, an evangelist of about fifty, is leading his family in a street service designed to attract converts from the passersby. His wife, Elvira, and their four children, Esta, age fifteen, Clyde, age twelve, Julia, age nine, and Frank, age seven, also take part in the service. Clyde does not enjoy doing this. He is not religiously inclined, and wishes he did not have to take part in it. He feels embarrassed by his family. His father is always focused on spiritual matters but is unable to make a good living to care properly for his family. After the street service, the family returns to their home, the Bethel Independent Mission, which is housed in a dreary and dilapidated side street.
Clyde is aware that others look down on his mother and father because of their humble occupation. He and his siblings do not receive much of an education, because his parents are often on the move and move him from school to school. Clyde has heard stories of his rich uncle, Samuel Griffiths, who lives in a small town called Lycurgus in the east, and Clyde pictures the luxury that must abound there, in contrast to the poverty of his immediate family. At the age of fifteen, Clyde begins to realize how lacking his education has been. He has not been trained for any occupation or profession. He hates being poor and envies those who have more than he does. He has no idea of what he wants to do in life, but he does know that whatever it is, his parents will be unable to help him.
Clyde’s sister Esta runs away with an actor who was performing in Kansas City. She leaves a note for her parents explaining what she has done, and her parents in turn explain it to the other children. Clyde understands why Esta left; he is as tired of his family life as she must have been. He has had thoughts himself about leaving; he has no interest at all in the work of the mission.
At the age of sixteen, Clyde takes a position as a soda water clerk in a drug store. He enjoys the work because it brings him into contact, for the first time in his life, with girls, who come to the soda fountain as customers. He also notes the well-dressed young men who come in and chat with the girls. He wishes he could be like them and soon becomes dissatisfied with the work because it does not pay enough for him to be able to afford new clothes. He decides that soon he will quit his job at the soda fountain, and he looks around for other work, applying for a position as a bell-boy at the Hotel Green-Davidson.
Clyde is interviewed by Mr. Squires at the hotel who agrees to take him on a trial basis. Another bell-boy named Oscar Hegglund is assigned to help him learn the job. Clyde gets fitted out with a new uniform. He is thrilled to be admitted to this new world of the busy hotel, which pays him far more money than he was earning at the soda fountain.
The opening five chapters are used to explain the social, economic, and familial background of the young Clyde Griffiths. It is obvious that here is a boy who is unsuited to the environment in which he is growing up. He appears to be lively and intelligent, but he does not possess the slightest interest in religion, which is virtually the entire concern of his parents. His parents neglect his education and appear to have made no effort to find out what Clyde is good at or what he enjoys doing. The life he is given by his parents seems like a very dreary thing to him. The central contrast is between their lack of worldliness and practicality, and Clyde’s interest in material things: as he enters adolescence he realizes that he likes girls and nice clothes, and he envies those young men he sees in the soda fountain who seem to have the best of everything. This note of envy, of wanting what he does not have, is sounded early and continues throughout the novel like a leitmotif. Chapter II provides a good example of how Clyde thinks: “Oh, the fine clothes, the handsome homes, the watches, rings, pins that some boys sported; the dandies many youths of his years already were! . . . And he had nothing. And he never had had.” Another contrast in these early chapters is between the poverty and drabness of his home and family life, and the glamorous world—at least Clyde thinks it is glamorous—he glimpses at the soda fountain, which adjoins a movie theater, and the luxurious Hotel Green-Davison. He has already daydreamed about what life must be like at his rich uncle’s in Lycurgus, and now he puts his attention on the glamorous world he has discovered in Kansas City and which he desires to enter. He imagines that on the other side of this magical door that he is trying to open, life will be wonderful.