For studies in American literature and beyond, a "transAtlantic" emphasis reinforces how much early European-American (and multicultural) literature and history occurred not in terms of the United States (or Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean) as now constituted, but rather in connection with Europe, Africa, and South America through shipping, transportation, and communication across the Atlantic Ocean.
"Trans-Atlantic Studies" challenge the curriculum of high school and college literature courses, which are normally organized as historical surveys of national literatures, e.g., English literature, American literature, Spanish literature, French literature, etc.
English, American, and other literatures remain significant because national literatures often rose simultaneously with the rise of powerful nations:
Shakespeare becomes a foundation of English literature during the Elizabethan phase of the British Empire.
Charles Dickens and other Victorian novelists define English literature during the period when "the sun never sets on the British Empire."
Cervantes and other giants of Spanish literature rose during the Spanish Empire.
Authors like Mark Twain or Scott Fitzgerald are associated with the westward expansion of the USA or its rise to global power in the 20th century.
Historically, however, literature often traverses national boundaries. Twain's earliest literary successes were travel writings about Hawaii (long before statehood) and the Middle East, and Fitzgerald lived for an important part of his life with other American expatriates in France and other parts of Europe.
Now global economics, transnational migration, and the planetary population / environmental crisis challenge the continued organization of modern humanity in nation-states, which mostly rose to power from the 1700s forward.
Partly in response, literary studies have begun to re-conceptualize organization beyond the national divisions that organized "American literature" and "English literature" in the 20th century. Instead of studying national literatures in isolation, literature is increasingly studied as a phenomenon created by international influences.
Trans-Atlantic Studies, for instance, pay attention to how throughout the early centuries of American exploration and settlement, so-called Americans went back and forth between different nations on both sides of the Atlantic.
Another contributor to such fields is "Black Atlantic Studies," which expands African American identity from the USA to all parts of the Atlantic affected by the triangular slave trade between Europe, Africa, and both Americas.
Maps of Atlantic Slave Trade
Among the simplest ways to think about the transAtlantic nature of the early United States is relative to the nation's Founders.
The USA's Founders—Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, etc.—grew up in colonies that were part of the British Empire; that is, their government was across the Atlantic Ocean.
During and after the American Revolution, Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson spent considerable time across the Atlantic in Europe as ambassadors negotiating treaties with European powers.
Even after Independence, the early United States was only a comparatively small nation on the Atlantic edge of North America. The nation thought of itself more as a maritime or seafaring nation than as a land power. (This attitude changed steadily and rapidly as European-American settlement spread west.)
Among earlier examples, European explorers were expected to return wealth (gold, other natural resources) to their home country, and explorers wanted to go home rich. Only later generations, especially children of explorers who were born in the Americas, thought of the Americas as their home, but even then they felt strong connections overseas.
Early settlers (including the Pilgrims and Puritans) were financed by European investors wanting a profit to be made for their livelihoods in Europe. Even the settlers who came to stay maintained communications and relations with business and family in Europe.
In literature, America was mostly not worth regarding from the European view, and Americans looked for the best literature to come from Europe. Even after American literature was established, Americans continued to read and be influenced by European literature, and European literature was increasingly influenced by American developments.
One of the greatest American novels, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, can hardly be imagined without the influence of Charles Dickens, an English novelist, on Stowe's style.