According to scholar Johannes D. Bergmann, "Benito Cereno", "Bartleby", and "The Encantadas" were the most frequently praised by reviewers of the stories that make up The Piazza Tales. Most reviews were unsigned, and not all singled out either "Benito Cereno" or any other individual story, but described the collection as a whole. On 9 July 1856, the Springfield Republican compared the collection to Hawthorne's best work, "Marked by a delicate fancy, a bright and most fruitful imagination, a pure and translucent style and a certain weirdness of conceit." "The legends themselves," wrote the Athenaeum for 26 July, "have a certain wild and ghostly power; but the exaggeration of their teller's manner appears to be on the increase." Also taking the stories together, the United States Democratic Review for September 1856 wrote that "All of them exhibit that peculiar richness of language, descriptive vitality, and splendidly sombre imagination which are the author's characteristics."
On 4 June 1856, the New Bedford Daily Mercury found that "Benito Cereno" was "told with due gravity." The New York Tribune on 23 June singled out "Benito Cereno" and "The Encantadas" as stories that were "fresh specimens of Mr. Melville's sea-romances, but cannot be regarded as improvements on his former popular productions in that kind." The New York Times for 27 June found "Benito Cereno" "melodramatic, not effective." As if describing a detective story, the Knickerbocker for September 1856 called the piece "most painfully interesting, and in reading it we become nervously anxious for the solution of the mystery it involves."
Later critical history
The Melville Revival of the early 1920s produced the first collected edition of his works, and the publication of the Constable edition of The Piazza Tales in 1922 marked a turning-point in the evaluation of the short fiction, with Michael Sadleirs remark in Excursions in Victorian Bibliography that Melville's genius is "more perfectly and skilfully revelead" in the short fiction than it is in Moby-Dick. "'Benito Cereno' and 'The Encantadas' hold in the small compass of their beauty the essence of their author's supreme artistry". Harold H. Scudder's 1928 study of Melville's major literary source for the story was the first scholarly article on the short fiction. Academic study of the novella took off, with gradually increasing numbers of annual publications on the story through the decades. Some of the most influential critics had little regard for the novella. Though F.O. Matthiesen finds that after Moby-Dick Melville only succeeded twice in achieving the fusion of "the inner and the outer world", in 'Benito Cereno' and Billy Budd. He calls 'Benito Cereno' one of Melville's "most sensitively poised pieces of writing". The tension in the story depends on how, Matthiessen observes, "the captain's mind sidles round and round the facts, almost seeing them at one moment only to be ingenuously diverted at the next". Matthiessen assumes a clear distinction of moral values, "the embodiment of good in the pale Spanish captain and of evil in the mutinied African crew", and this interpretation leads him to object: "Although the Negroes were savagely vindictive and drove a terror of blackness into Cereno's heart, the fact remains that they were slaves and that evil had thus originally been done to them." Melville's perceived failure to reckon with this makes his story, "for all its prolonged suspense, comparatively superficial".
Reviewing scholarship and criticism up to 1970, Nathalia Wright found that most essays were "divided between a moral - metaphysical interpretation (Babo being the embodiment of evil, Delano of unperceptive good will) and a socio-political one (the slaves corresponding chiefly to those in nineteenth-century America)." The second category can be further divided into three groups: critics who saw "sympathy for the slaves," a few who recognized "pro-slavery or ambivalent sentiments," and those who concentrated on "Delano as a naive American," one of whom identified "Cereno with Europe."
In the years after the Second World War readers found the story "embarrassing for its presumed racist treatment of the Africans", while more recent readers, by contrast, "acknowledge Melville's naturalistic critique of racism."