This essay takes as its starting point a consideration of the ways in which the ideological methodology of “New Americanist” criticism has closed off possibilities of reading that might choose to value ambiguity, contradiction, and excess – elements which militate against the discursive neatness of critique. In readings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and José Martí, I argue that resolutely politicised interpretations of Emerson fail to do justice to the unstable texture of his prose. In turn, Martí’s writing about the United States is more uneven, surreal and excessive than a straightforward account of postcolonial resistance allows. Both Emerson and Martí exhibit a discursive flexibility that puts pressure on readings driven by inflexible ideological parameters seeking to position both men within frameworks of political quietism and postcolonial revolution respectively. I explore how the idea of revolution is imagined by Emerson in ways that run counter to our more conventional understanding of political transformation. To be sure, Martí’s revolutionary actions in the cause of Cuban independence were tangible in ways that Emerson could never have countenanced for himself; nevertheless Emerson’s understanding of resistance as differently located and performed provoked in Martí a high, and consistent, degree of sympathy.