Melville probably wrote the novella in the winter of 1854-55. The first mentioning of it appears in a letter of 17 April 1855 from adviser George William Curtis to Joshua A. Dix, the publisher of Putnam's. Curtis expressed being "anxious" to read Melville's new story, which Dix then sent him. On 19 April Curtis wrote to Dix he found the story "very good", even though he regretted that Melville "did not work it up as a connected tale instead of putting in the dreary documents at the end." In a letter of 31 July Curtis still had reservations about "all the dreadful statistics at the end", but nevertheless proposed the serialization.
The novella was first serialized anonymously in Putnam's Monthly Magazine in three installments: no. 34, October 1855; no. 35, November 1855; and no. 36, December 1855.[note 4] around the same time that DeBow's Review, a "virulently pro-slavery" magazine, denounced Putnam's as "the leading review of the Black Republican party," because the periodical was becoming "increasingly belligerent on the slavery issue."
The October Issue, the first installment also carried a piece on "the suicide of slavery," referring to the possible destruction of the republic. Thus, the novella appeared in a "partisan magazine committed to the anti-slavery cause."
On October 9, 1855, Evening Post correspondent "Pictor" revealed the source for the story, and inferred how it would end.
No record of payment for the novella survives, but apparently the magazine's new owners continued to pay Melville at the rate of $5.00 per page. Putnam's editorial advisor George William Curtis finished reading the novella as early as April, and recommended its acceptance to Joshua Dix, because it was "very striking & well done" on the whole, though he took "the dreary documents at the end" for a sign that Melville "does everything too hurriedly now." Despite Curtis's pressing to use it in the September issue--"You have paid for it," he wrote on 31 July—serializing began six months after he first voiced his approval.
The novella was included in The Piazza Tales, published by Dix & Edwards in May 1856 in the United States; in June the British edition appeared. The working title of this collection when Melville prepared the magazine pages as printer's copy was "Benito Cereno & Other Sketches". Melville wrote a note to be appended to the title of "Benito Cereno", either as a footnote or a headnote, in which he acknowledged his source. Biographer Hershel Parker believes he did this because Pictor had revealed the source for the novella. Melville decided to drop the note after the change of title meant that the stories were no longer presented as sketeches but as tales. In his letter of 16 February 1856 to Dix & Edwards, Melville directed that the note be dropped "as the book is now to be published as a collection of 'Tales' , that note is unsuitable & had better be omitted." The editors of the Northwestern-Newberry edition infer that the note, which does not survive, would have revealed the relation between the story and Amasa Delano's original account, and that Melville thought this relationship was better left unrevealed in a "tale".
No other printing appeared during Melville's lifetime.
Among those editors was Richard Henry Dana, an anti-slavery activist whose Boston-based Vigilance Committee outfitted a vessel in 1852 dubbed the Moby Dick to ferry fugitive slaves to safety. By the time Benito Cereno was being composed and edited, Putnam’s was owned by Joshua Dix, Arthur Edwards, and silent partner Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted, who copyedited and proofread Benito Cereno, is responsible for some of the idiosyncratic spelling in the tale’s Putnam’s version.20 In 1855, Olmsted, who would go on to cofound The Nation, was working on a series of books about the slaveholding South.
In 1926 the novella became the first separate edition of any of his short prose pieces when the Nonesuch Press published the 1856 text with illustrations by E. McKnight Kauffer.